Grade schoolers honor fallen astronauts during 'Day of Remembrance'

WOODSTOCK – Rebecca Gilmore couldn’t help but be moved by the moment.

As her students crowded into a group outside the Challenger Learning Center and one by one released balloons into the cold air, Gilmore thought back to those three space shuttle tragedies – the Challenger, Apollo and Columbia.

“It gives me goosebumps,” said Gilmore, a teacher at Crystal Lake Montessori school. “It’s just a powerful moment to remember.”

Gilmore wasn’t the only one thinking back to three of the most remembered moments in the history of space exploration on Friday. The Challenger center recognized NASA’s national “Day of Remembrance” with a ceremony honoring the 17 fallen astronauts.

About 55 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders arrived Friday morning to engage in the center’s offerings. Just before noon, the students were handed electronic candles and filtered into the center’s common area. They faced a TV that played a video about the three missions.

All three shuttles malfunctioned within a one week period, providing a natural window for NASA’s annual day of remembrance.

The three astronauts aboard Apollo 1 during a launch test cabin fire died Jan. 27, 1967. Seven died on Jan. 28, 1986, when the Challenger exploded a little more than a minute into its flight. Another seven crew members died Feb. 1, 2003, when the Columbia disintegrated on its way back to earth.

“Today, we are honoring these 17 astronauts,” Challenger Executive Director Chantel Madson told the kids. “If you think about it, it’s pretty amazing that only 17 have lost their lives. But they were all important space pioneers.”

After the video, students filed outside and into the center’s parking lot. The names of each astronaut were written on balloons color coded red, white and blue to signify each mission. The balloons were then released by 17 selected students.

“They’ve studied it,” Gilmore said of the three events. “But they’ve never really acknowledged it in such a touching way.”

In addition to Crystal Lake Montessori, students from Seth Whitman Elementary in Belvidere were on hand Friday. Susan Williams, a teacher at the school, has been taking her fifth-graders to Challenger since it opened 13 years ago. It’s a trip that always registers among the year’s highlights, she said.

But Friday was the school’s first visit during the day of remembrance ceremony.

“I thought it was just wonderful,” she said. “Just to remember each one of those (missions) and those people who gave their lives for science.”

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