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Solemn tributes mark 25th Challenger anniversary

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, January 28, 2011 9:25 EDT
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Tributes were planned at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center Friday marking 25 years to the day that the shuttle Challenger exploded, killing seven astronauts and forever altering US perceptions about the risks of human spaceflight.

A 9:00 am (1400 GMT) a memorial service at Cape Canaveral visitor’s complex has been planned to honor the crew of the doomed space shuttle, organized by the Astronauts Memorial Foundation.

Speakers at the event is June Scobee Rodgers, widow of astronaut Dick Scobee who was the commander of the doomed space vessel.

The event comes one day after a national day of remembrance Thursday for the Challenger astronauts reminded the country of the wrenching events of January 28, 1986, when the country watched in horror as the Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven astronauts on board.

Engineers later determined that the blast was caused by the failure of a joint seal due to cold weather.

Some believe that the Challenger tragedy set in motion the space program’s slow decline, with no manned flights from American soil planned after the shuttle is retired later this year.

The high profile space mission included the first teacher, Christa McAuliffe, to embark on a mission to space. Her widower, Steven McAuliffe, issued a statement Thursday urging the nation not to focus on the tragic accident, but to instead remember why she decided to join the Challenger crew in the first place.

“Christa confidently and joyfully embraced life, no less than her friends and colleagues on Challenger, and no less than the crews of Columbia, Apollo 1, and all of those people who courageously follow their own paths every day,” he said.

The Cape Canaveral ceremony is a second day of observances in honor of the Challenger and its crew, after a ceremony Thursday held at Arlington National Cemetery outside of Washington, DC.

President Barack Obama issued a statement Thursday marking the solemn occasion.

“We have seen that achieving great things sometimes comes at great cost and we mourn the brave astronauts who made the ultimate sacrifice in support of NASA missions throughout the agency’s storied history,” Obama said.

“We pause to reflect on the tragic loss of the Apollo 1 crew, those who boarded the space shuttle Challenger in search of a brighter future, and the brave souls who perished on the space shuttle Columbia.”

A total of 24 people have been killed while supporting the space agency’s mission since 1964, NASA said.

Among them were seven astronauts killed aboard the Columbia in 2003 when the space shuttle disintegrated upon re-entry to Earth due to a damaged heat shield that was compromised by a broken off piece of insulation.

Three astronauts died aboard the Apollo 1 in 1967 when a fire broke out during a launch pad test.

“This year marks the 25th anniversary of the loss of Challenger — a tragedy that caused us to completely re-think our systems and processes as we worked to make the shuttle safer,” said NASA chief Charles Bolden.

“The nation will never forget January 28, 1986, nor its indelible images.”

Bolden attended a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington on Thursday, and flags at NASA stations were flown at half-mast.

“NASA has learned hard lessons from each of our tragedies, and they are lessons that we will continue to keep at the forefront of our work as we continuously strive for a culture of safety that will help us avoid our past mistakes and heed warnings while corrective measures are possible,” Bolden said.

“The legacy of those who have perished is present every day in our work and inspires generations of new space explorers.”

The United States plans to retire its space shuttle program this year. The shuttle Discovery is set to launch on February 24, followed by Endeavour on April 18.

If the space agency can secure the funding from Congress, a final voyage to the International Space Station is scheduled for Atlantis at the end of June.

The shuttles made a major contribution to the construction of the ISS, a multibillion dollar project begun in 1998 and financed largely by the United States.

After the fleet is retired, international space agencies will have to rely on Russian space capsules for access to the ISS.

Agence France-Presse
Agence France-Presse
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