ALLEGANY, NY—Thirty years ago Christa McAuliffe, an American social studies teacher, was about to make history.

She, along with six NASA astronauts, was strapped into the Challenger Space Shuttle’s crew compartment, awaiting takeoff from Kennedy Space Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Schoolchildren all over the country had their eyes glued either to their television sets or to the sky above them, anxious for a glimpse of the space shuttle as it was readied to streamline upwards into space carrying a crew that included the first teacher ever to breach the 264,000 feet threshold.

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Within 73 seconds, America’s heart was broken.

A structural failure caused a disastrous chain reaction – a loud pop, an enormous puff of smoke and the sudden deaths of all seven on board. Millions of eyes remained focused on the TV or the sky in utter disbelief.

Sharon Bushnell of Hinsdale was a fourth-grade teacher in Hinsdale Central School at the time. During the launch, she and her students were gathered with the other fourth-grade and its teacher in Bushnell's classroom. “I remember everybody staring at the TV. It was a big deal,” said Bushnell, who works as a commander at the Dresser-Rand Challenger Learning Center at 182 E. Union St.

She recalled her shock over the explosion. “I know my students didn’t realize it at the time. We saw the family members on camera. I remember trying to figure out how to explain to my students what had happened and finally I told them: ‘You just watched people die.’ ”

Patrick Vecchio, a lecturer in the Russell J. Jandoli School of Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Bonaventure University, also recalled that moment in history.

“I remember that day well because it was my first day at the Olean Times Herald," he said. "I had a story all set for the front page about the launch, and then when it exploded obviously the story completely changed and so they got a more experienced writer on the front page.”

What happened on Jan. 28, 1986, was NASA’s worst disaster but did not cripple its manned-spacecraft program. These days, Fred Welch, a retired Olean teacher and executive director of the Challenger Learning Center, believes interest in space and space travel is as high as ever.

The Dresser-Rand center, he explained, is one of more than 40 Challenger centers in the United States; there also are Challenger centers in London, Toronto and South Korea.

“A year after the tragedy, the families and friends of the Challenger disaster victims came together and wanted to do something in their honor,” Welch said. “They wanted to do something for kids interested in space travel.”

With the support of Dresser-Rand, Cutco and U.S. Rep. Randy Kuhl Jr., the center opened in 2009 on land leased from St. Bonaventure University. According to its website, the DRCLC prides itself on being, “a space-themed facility with educational programs designed to stimulate interest in science, technology, engineering and math—also known as STEM education.”

Welch stresses that anyone who was alive and can remember where they were on Jan. 28, 1986, does remember.

“It was shocking. I wasn’t watching it live, but the librarian told me, and I saw it on the news right after and I was stunned,” Welch remembered.

For more information on the Dresser-Rand Challenger Learning Center, visit http://drclc.org.

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