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Words Of Comfort

Before Saturday morning, the loss of the space shuttle Challenger was the one national tragedy that reminded Americans that space missions are anything but routine.

The images of that day are still so vivid that many people at Kennedy Space Center can't look up without looking back, reports CBS News correspondent Tracy Smith.

The story of the Challenger can be read on the faces of the people who were looking up toward the skies that winter morning 17 years ago, when, just 73 seconds after liftoff, the promise of a nation shattered in midair.

Seven astronauts were lost: Richard Scobee, Michael Smith, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe, selected from 11,000 applicants to be the first teacher in space.

"Being a Navy wife, and Mike had been a test pilot, and an instructor test pilot, I was used to looking at airplanes, and I knew right away something was wrong," recalls Michael Smith's widow, Jane Smith Wolcott, in an interview with Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith. "All the Challenger families were on the roof of the launch control center at the Cape," she adds.

For her, Saturday's loss of Columbia was "heart wrenching."

"We are all - and my family joins me- we are deeply saddened by this terrible loss of these great, very brave men and women. It is a very difficult time for NASA," she says.

Kathie Scobee Fulgham, the oldest of the Challenger children, was 24 when she lost her father.

"It took me a couple of days to really understand what had happened," she says. That day, she was not able to see her father before his shuttle lifted off.

"The astronaut doctors do a little mini physical on everybody to make sure they don't send any weird germs up to space. And I had a throat infection, and so I was kept away," she says. As a result, she kept hoping that her father was alive somehow.

"I was just determined that the ships needed to go back out in the water. They needed to look for my daddy. He was on an island; he was on a piece of space shuttle, floating. He was waiting to be picked up. And I just kept encouraging them to keep looking and really someone had to come to me and say that he's gone before I could accept it," she says.

She wrote about what she went through in a letter to the children whose parents perished in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Today, she tells the children of the Columbia accident, "It's bad. And it's going to be bad for a very long time."

"But it will get better and that they need to just turn off the television, and not watch the way that the family member died. But try to focus on the way they lived by gathering stories about their loved ones. Personally, I carried around a little tape recorder, and when people wanted to cry with me, or just wanted to talk about the accident, I would say,'But what I really need is a story about my daddy. Tell me a funny story. Tell me something.' And those were the memories that I held onto all this time," she adds.

That night, president Reagan was scheduled to give the State of the Union address. Instead he gave a eulogy.

"Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says 'Give me a challenge, and I'll meet it with joy,'" he said during his speech.

What would the Columbia families need to hear from our current president?

"Well, President Bush has already delivered such a fabulous talk," says Wolcott. "He talked about the way they lived. He talked about their enthusiasm, how much their life meant to this country. How much the purpose in their life continues on, and he said, he would do everything, and NASA will do everything to be certain that their memory lives on."

Jack Weakland and Charlie Mars, two men who helped build the shuttle program, were among those watching the Challenger's launch. Since the accident they have devoted their lives to remembering the risks and sacrifices of every astronaut, with small pieces of memorabilia in a museum that means a great deal.

"It's a part of history, so why shouldn't we keep their memory alive?" asks Weakland of the U. S. Space Walk of Fame.

And on each anniversary, people across the country pay tribute to the Challenger crew.

This Jan. 28, they were honored by seven colleagues on a heros' mission of their own, the crew of Columbia: "Their dedication and devotion to the exploration in space was an inspiration to each of us and still motivates people around the world to achieve great things in service to others. Our thoughts and prayers go to their families as well."

The astronaut memorial is just a few miles away from the Kennedy Space Center in Titusville, Fla. Towns planners say the names of each of the seven Columbia astronauts will be placed on plaques next to the plaques representing each of the Challenger astronaut.

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