WOODSTOCK – One by one, they floated away.
Three white balloons went first, representing the lives lost during a launch test for Apollo 1. Then went seven blue balloons for the astronauts who died when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on its way back to Earth 10 years ago.
Finally, the fifth-graders from Westwood Elementary let go of seven red balloons to honor the astronauts who died when the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff in 1986.
The tragedies span three-and-a-half decades – 1967 to 2003 – yet the anniversaries all fall within calendar six days – Jan. 27 to Feb. 1.
Woodstock’s Challenger Learning Center for Science and Technology paid tribute to the fallen astronauts Friday on NASA’s Day of Remembrance. It hosted about 50 fifth-graders for a candlelight vigil, followed by the release of 17 balloons.
“Three separate accidents, three different things, but ironically they happened within a week of each other,” said Chantel Madson, director of the Woodstock center. “It is eerie, but it’s kind of a beautiful thing that we can celebrate all three together.”
Madson spoke briefly before the attendees illuminated their electronic candles. She shared the story of each mission.
On Jan. 27, 1967, what was to be the first manned mission of the Apollo lunar exploration program came to a halt in a cabin fire during a launch test.
Ninetee years later, on Jan. 28, 1986, the Challenger blew up on launch, 18 miles above the Earth’s surface.
And 10 years ago Friday, space shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it returned from its 28th trip to space.
Family members of the Challenger’s fallen astronauts developed the Challenger Organization, which maintains 43 centers across the country, Madson said. The centers aim to educate a new generation of space explorers.
Daily, Woodstock’s Challenger center hosts fifth-graders to participate in simulated space missions and learn in the interactive adventure center.
Huddling outside the center Friday afternoon, fifth-graders from Westwood talked about space.
“It was awesome,” Eli Woodson, 10, of Woodstock, said of his time at the center. “The ceremony was sad.”
Several said they’d consider working for NASA in the future.
That’s the goal of Madson and the Challenger Organization – to pique young students’ interest toward space.
“There’s so much to be learned out there that we can’t learn here on Earth,” Madson said. “So it’s important to let these children know that they’re our future, and they’re going to be the next explorers.”