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Residents remember Challenger explosion

January 28, 2011

Twenty-five years ago, the country watched in anticipation as seven astronauts prepared to lift off into space.

Seventy-three seconds later, the country watched with horror as those seven lives were lost in a massive explosion on the Challenger space shuttle.

Friday was the 25th anniversary of the Challenger explosion, an event that Catawba County residents say is akin to Sept. 11, 2001 or the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995.

For Catawba County's chief technology information officer Terry Bledsoe, Jan. 28, 1986 started off as a snowy day. Bledsoe was a teacher then, and the snow canceled his classes that day. He was at home watching the launch.

"The scary thing was that image that you see now (of the explosion), that was live on TV," he said.

Just mentioning the Challenger explosion sends a chill through Bledsoe's body.

"What happened changed everything," he said.

Bledsoe wasn't the only teacher tuned into the launch Jan. 28, 1986.

Teachers around the country watched as one of their own, Christa McAuliffe, was set to be the first teacher in space. She won a competition to be on the launch that was designed to create interest in the space program among school children nationwide.

School children, too, tuned into the event. A New York Times poll estimated that nearly half of 9- to 11-year-olds in America watched the launch at school.

McAuliffe and her teaching is what Catawba resident Terry Donaldson remembers most about the explosion.

"She was a school teacher," he said. "That's what I remember. I very rarely ever watch (shuttle launches), but it was a big thing then.

That's why I watched it."

Other crew members on the shuttle were pilot Mike Smith, commander Dick Scobee, Ron McNair, mission specialist Ellison Onizuka, payload specialist Greg Jarvis and mission specialist Judith Resnick.

"It was just like everything was gone in an instant," said Bobby Pope, of Claremont.

Pope recalled how everything appeared to be fine with the launch, but when he saw the smoke around the shuttle, he knew something was wrong.

"We had the radio on at work, and I heard the news," said Tina Propst, of Conover. "I said, 'Oh my gosh, the space shuttle exploded.'"

Regardless of where residents were when the explosion happened or what they remember about the Challenger launch, they agreed on one thing: it was a devastating loss for the entire country.

"It was just sad," Pope said. "It was a bad tragedy."

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