It was an evening of memories and a ballroom filled with people who remembered exactly where they were 30 years earlier, on Jan. 28, 1986. Seared into every memory was the exact moment they learned of the space shuttle Challenger disaster.

The 30th anniversary of the tragedy was observed by Challenger Learning Center of Colorado, one of 40 STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) educational sites considered the living memorial to the seven crew members, including the first schoolteacher in space, who lost their lives when the shuttle exploded.

So too, the learning centers honor the seven who lost their lives as the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated re-entering Earth's atmosphere in 2003 and the three astronauts who died in NASA's first space disaster, the Apollo 1 fire that took three lives in 1967.

"We owe an unpayable debt of gratitude to these men and women," Gary Coulter, Challenger Learning Center of Colorado board chairman and founder, told an anniversary fundraising gala crowd at The Antlers hotel.

The learning centers, said Coulter, were a way to "touch the future" and have exposed 4.4 million schoolchildren, 50,000 of them in Colorado, to the magical draw that is space. As part of the program students explore space through simulated flights.

Real-life astronauts, veterans of a number of missions, were on hand to observe the anniversary: Jeff Ashby and Joseph Tanner, Navy; James Voss, Army; Duane Carey, Brian Duffy, Susan Helms, Gary Payton and Ron Sega, Air Force.

Helms, the keynote speaker, had special Challenger memories. The Air Force lieutenant general was a captain, an instructor at the Air Force Academy who was going into class, when she was told what had just happened. She had to tell the cadets, an especially difficult task, she said, because Challenger commander Dick Scobee's son was a senior at the academy and her class was filled with his friends.

A cadet asked Helms if, because of what had happened, she would fly on a shuttle. Without pause, her answer, "of course." "This cadet prompted something in me. On one of the darkest days, I knew I wanted to be part of it." And was she ever: five space missions and she and astronaut Jim Voss lived on the International Space Station where they had the longest space walk in history. Their response to their eight-hour, 56-minute walk? "It was too short," said Helms, with a soft smile, remembering.

The future of space exploration leaves her "stunned and elated to see the scope," said Helms. It is morphing into something far beyond anything heretofore imagined. "The state of space exploration today is on the verge of going viral."

Helms had earlier met with the two young winners of the anniversary art and writing competition, both of whom had firm ideas about what's coming. Rowan Raetz, a fourth-grader at Chinook Trail Elementary, produced a video in which he talked about the future of space exploration and demonstrated a spacecraft model he designed and built. John Applegate, 5 years old and a student at Academy-ACL Kindergarten, created a 3D model of the first astronaut on Mars. Top educator was Rae Anne "Randi" Dotter of Cotopaxi.

The anniversary tribute was filled with lovely moments including posting of the colors that included the American flag that had survived the fateful Challenger liftoff, recovered from the bottom of the ocean.

It was Mayor John Suthers saying, "Here we are 30 years later using that tragedy to inspire young people." Suthers, too, recalled exactly what he was doing when Challenger exploded. A friend, Gary Shupp, was announcing his run for county commissioner and Suthers was there in support. As word came down, the stunned local media left en masse, Suthers remembered.

Three special men received a standing ovation as they were paid tribute for service preceding space exploration: Tuskegee Airmen Frank Macon, Loren Smith and Top Gun James Harvey.

And the fitting musical tribute on large screens was the music of David Bowie, astronaut Chris Hadfield's "Space Oddity" performed from the International Space Station. Hadfield said, "When David Bowie wrote and recorded 'Space Oddity' in 1969, I wonder if he ever imagined it being played in orbit? Being able to record 'Oddity' on the International Space Station was an attempt to bring that art full circle. It was meant as a way to allow people to experience, without it being stated, that our culture had reached beyond the planet. We live in space."

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