HAZARD — On the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, most Americans woke up already knowing that day was going to be historic, but they did not truly understand why until 11:39 a.m. In the previous weeks, the nation had buzzed with excitement for the Challenger Space Shuttle mission, which after several delays, was finally set to lift off.
Back then, space shuttle launches attracted a lot of attention from the public and were typically televised nationally. The 1986 Challenger launch generated more interest than most, largely because of Christa McAuliffe, who was chosen by NASA out of 11,000 candidates to become the first teacher ever to travel into outer space. Temperatures at the time of lift off were unusually frigid for Florida, even in the middle of winter. Ice caused O-rings on the shuttle to malfunction and 73 seconds into its flight, rockets on the Challenger exploded, which caused the cabin of the shuttle to detach and plummet into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all seven crew members on board.
On the thirtieth anniversary of the Challenger disaster, a few local citizens shared their memories of that tragic morning.
“I was siting on the couch folding laundry and watching it live,” said Heather Pigman, “I remember, when it exploded, the news camera scanned the crowd and focused on Christa McAuliffe’s parents and the looks on their faces was so tragic. Thirty years later, all the things I have forgotten, I still remember the teacher’s name and her parents’ faces.”
“I sat down on the coffee table directly in front of the T.V. to watch the take off,” Laura Melton recalled, “They were doing a lot of coverage on Christa McAuliffe and her story as a teacher and a mother. I remember the explosion and the confusion on my behalf, wondering if that explosion was the separation of the shuttle and quickly we knew it wasn’t. It was such an exciting day that quickly turned into a tragic day.”
No one could have known on the day of the tragedy that the Challenger explosion would have an everlasting impact on the town of Hazard, an impact that would make a positive difference, especially for children in the area.
The Challenger Learning Center opened to the people of Hazard in 1999. On the day of its opening, the Challenger Center was located on Main Street. Today, the campus of Hazard Community and Technical College is home to the Challenger Center’s fascinating facility. According to the center’s website, the Challenger Learning Center of Kentucky is one in a network of 47 Challenger Learning Centers which were started by the families of the Challenger astronauts tragically killed in the 1986 space shuttle disaster. The Challenger Learning Center of Kentucky was the 34th center in the network and the first located in a rural area. Their mission is to demonstrate the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in our everyday lives and how fun and exciting these topics can be. The Hazard Herald visited the Challenger Center on the thirtieth anniversary of the shuttle disaster to learn more about the center.
“We’ve had about 150,00 students come through here in the time the Challenger Center has been open,” said Tom Cravens, who has been with the Challenger Center since day one.
The first Challenger Learning Center opened in Houston. Appropriately fitting with the story of the Challenger Shuttle itself, Hazard was able to obtain one of the learning centers because of a teacher’s vision. Alice Noble, who had retired as a teacher from Hazard High School, went on in her retirement to work for Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. While working for Wright-Patterson, Noble became aware of the Challenger Learning Center Project and launched a mission to open one in Hazard.
“She approached the mayor (Bill Gorman) with her idea and he started working on getting everything together to make it happen,” Cravens said of Alice Noble, “The first board for the Challenger Center was established in 1996 and three years later we were open.”
The Challenger Center in Hazard provides displays with information about the history of the Space Program, including a special display featuring Hazard native John Goodlette and his amazing contributions to space exploration. The Challenger Center also offers programs throughout the year that focus on teaching space and technology. Students visiting the Challenger Center can embark on simulated missions and learn about the history of space travel. Hazard’s facility is the only one in the world to offer the Mars Invasion 2030: From Coal Camp to Space Camp exhibit. This extensive exhibit showcases the similarities between coal mining and space exploration.
“We are already mining on Mars right now,” Cravens said, “That’s what a Rover does. It digs, and when astronauts finally go to Mars, that’s what they will have to do. They will have to mine to find water.”
On the day the Challenger Learning Center opened in Hazard, Gov. Paul Patton and Rep. Hal Rogers were on the site, along with students and several members of the community. June Scobee-Rodgers was also there as the doors to the Challenger Center opened for the first time. June Scobee-Rodgers is the widow of Dick Scobee, who served as commander of the Challenger Shuttle on its fateful flight.
“I remember the day the Challenger exploded,” Tom Cravens said, “It was terrible. It’s amazing for me to think; had that mission happened the way it was supposed to, those astronauts would have lived and Christa McAuliffe would have been famous. But because the tragedy happened the way it did, it led to this place being here and thousands of kids have had the opportunity to learn.”
More information about the Challenger Learning Center of Kentucky can be found on their website, clcky.com. These are the names of the seven crew members, who lost their lives in the Challenger Shuttle Disaster: Dick Scobee (Commander), Michael Smith (Pilot), Ronald McNair (Mission Specialist), Ellison Onizuka (Mission Specialist), Judith Resnik (Mission Specialist), Gregory Jarvis (Payload Specialist) and Christa McAuliffe (Payload Specialist).
Sam Neace can be contacted at 606-629-3243 or on Twitter @HazardHerald.