Columbia Explosion Brings Back Memories Of Challenger Tragedy

Half a dozen teachers training at a space center were in disbelief Saturday morning after seeing reports that a space shuttle apparently exploded while returning to Earth.

The Kentucky teachers were in the middle of a space simulation at the Challenger Learning Center in Radcliff, when they heard that contact had been lost with the space shuttle, Columbia.

"I'm just astounded, it's completely shocked me," said Danny Allen, a science teacher at Cumberland County High School in Burkesville. "Nobody worries about the landing."

Columbia, which launched on Jan. 16, was scheduled to land in Cape Canaveral, Fla., at 9:16 a.m. Upon re-entry to Earth, the shuttle was at an altitude of about 203,000 feet over north-central Texas at 9 a.m. when NASA Mission Control lost contact and tracking data.

Video footage from broadcast news reports show that the shuttle, carrying seven crew members, apparently broke into pieces upon re-entry. Residents in the Texas area began finding debris from the shuttle shortly afterward.

The incident reminded many residents when the space shuttle -- Challenger -- exploded on Jan. 28, 1986. The seven crew members, including New Hampshire schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, took off aboard the Challenger from Kennedy Space Center. Seventy-three seconds later, the shuttle disintegrated in the sky. All crew members were killed while millions watched on live television.

Later that year, family members of the fallen astronauts donated funds to build space-education centers throughout the country. The first Challenger Learning Center was built in Houston. Since then, three centers have been built in Kentucky.

Cyndi Murray, is a senior flight director at the Challenger Learning Center in Radcliff, Ky. She said herself and six area teachers were conducting a flight simulation when they heard the news. The teachers were training prior to field trips planned with their students this year.

"My prayers are going out to the families of the Columbia astronauts," Murray said Saturday morning. "From working with the Challenger program, I've talked with families of the Challenger astronauts and have felt their pain. I feel for those families."

Allen said Saturday's explosion would have an effect on the country.

"The Challenger shuttle brought more of a human touch to space travel. Not everyone has spent time with an astronaut, but everyone has had a teacher," Murray said. "That liftoff definitely brought it (space travel) closer to home."

In eastern Kentucky, a former NASA employee was watching television at his home when he saw the footage of the exploding shuttle.

"This is beyond anything that I would have dreamed of," said Douglas Thorpe, 29 of Irvine. Thorpe formerly worked as a mechanical engineer for NASA. "An explosion during a landing? It's beyond me. It's almost unheard of. The most hazardous time is during takeoff, not the landing."

Thorpe first applied for an electrical engineering position with NASA in 1986.

"I interviewed for my first job with NASA on Jan. 28, 1986, the day the Challenger exploded. I didn't get the job, but that was about the last thing on my mind," he said.

Thorpe was hired 18 months later as a mechanical engineer.

"I was looking at the date on my watch this morning, Feb. 1, that's just too close to Jan. 28," he said.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)