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Families Of Challenger Astronauts Familiar With Pain Of Columbia Tragedy

Posted February 2, 2003

— Friends and family of Challenger astronauts Ronald McNair and Mike Smith said the explosion Saturday of space shuttle Columbia is a painful reminder of a similar tragedy 17 years ago.

The Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986, claiming the lives of seven astronauts. Among those lost was Smith, a man the Beaufort, N.C., airport has been named after, and McNair, who graduated from North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro.

Lela Austin, McNair's aunt, first received word from a friend Saturday that Columbia broke apart in flames 200,000 feet over Texas.

"It took me right back," Austin said in a telephone interview from her Lake City, Fla., home. "I've just been reliving that tragic day."

Saturday marked the third time a space mission has taken the lives of astronauts.

Three died on January 27, 1967. A flash fire swept through the Apollo One module during a ground test at the Kennedy Space Center.

Almost exactly 19 years later came the Challenger tragedy. A ceremony was held last week at NASA and aboard the Columbia to honor those lost in the Challenger explosion.

Smith's sister, Ellen Leonard, who lives in Raleigh, relived that horrible day on Saturday.

"I talked to him the night before the launch," Leonard said.

Leonard said she prefers to remember her brother as he appears in a photo taken at a NASA picnic - and not to remember how he died.

"You relive it just like it was today," Leonard said. "You have the same emotions as if you were standing there watching it."

Leonard watched the Challenger explosion from the Kennedy Space Center viewing area.

"The first question I asked," she said, "was: 'Did they suffer?'"

Saturday, Leonard watched the Columbia disaster on television. Her heart went out to the astronauts' families.

"It's a sad day," she said. "It's going to be extremely hard for the families for days to come. It's something they'll never get over, but they'll be able to deal with better every day."

Smith flew airplanes before he got his driver's license. Leonard said that, when Smith became an astronaut, he was prepared for anything.

"In one of our conversations," she said, "just sitting at a picnic table (he said): 'you know, it's nothing but a controlled bomb.' They know the risk. They're willing to take the risk. They hope everything is being done to minimize the risk."

Meanwhile, McNair's legacy is alive in his hometown of Lake City, Fla., where a statue and park were created as memorials. Plans also are under way to establish a museum in his honor.

The city held its annual candlelight service for McNair just last week, said T.R. Cooper, chairman of the Ron McNair Committee and McNair's elementary school principal.

To witness another shuttle explosion days later disturbed Cooper.

"I was completely shocked," he said. "Then, it was just a flashback to 1986."

Both Cooper and Austin said their thoughts are with the friends and families of the seven astronauts killed Saturday.

"My prayer is that God will hold them all close in his arms," Austin said.

Loved ones can find solace in the fact that the astronauts died doing what they loved, Cooper said.

"That's the way I can get past it, because I knew they were doing something they wanted," he said. "All we can do is make sure we keep their legacies alive."

Austin said she expects Saturday's disaster will pull people together, as it did when her nephew perished aboard the Challenger.

"We got past it through support from each other," she said. "There was so much love from people all over the nation and all over the world."

Leonard said NASA was very supportive of the families of the Challenger victims. But she added that seeing the images of her brother on television over and over was incredibly painful.

In 1991, an astronaut memorial was built at the Kennedy Space Centers containing the names of the Apollo and Challenger victims. Unfortunately, they're going to have to add seven names to the list.

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