Twenty-five years ago Friday, one of the great tragedies in American history took place. At 11:38 a.m., only seconds after takeoff, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded across the Florida sky.

All seven astronauts aboard were killed. But the families and colleagues of Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis and Judith Resnik were determined to ensure their lives were not lost in vain. And thus, the Challenger Space Center was born.

“First there was tragedy, but then there was hope,” said Kari Sliva, executive director of the center’s location in Peoria. “The families of those astronauts wanted something that would live on through generations.”

Sliva was speaking at a remembrance ceremony to honor the memory of the disaster and to celebrate 25 years of what that tragedy became. That is, the 47 Challenger Learning Centers located across the United States as well as in Canada, South Korea and the United Kingdom.

Dozens of students from Kyrene de la Mariposa Elementary were on hand for the ceremony.

“You kids are not old enough to remember,” Sliva said. “But all the adults in the room will tell you they remember exactly where they were that day.”

Children are the focus of the Space Center’s mission, she said, with 30,000 students per year visiting, learning and gaining a new appreciation for the universe.

“We are so excited to have you be a part of this living legacy each and every day,” Sliva said. “Students get to become astronauts for a day, and that’s pretty cool.”

Deb Jones, a teacher at Coyote Hills Elementary in Peoria whose team won the Honeywell Fiesta Bowl Aerospace Challenge, has been enamored with the space program for as long as she can remember.

“NASA and the space program have been an inspiration in my teaching throughout my career,” she said.

Jones was a kindergarten teacher in San Francisco in 1986.

“The space shuttle launched, and within seconds it was gone,” she said. “I remember a friend telling me it had happened. I was in denial.”

Jones said she has spent her years as a teacher using space science as a way to engage her students. She said she was happy to be a part of the ceremony in Peoria.

“The legacy of those seven astronauts lives on in this building,” she said.

For information about the center, visit

Jeff Dempsey may be reached at 623-876-2531 or

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