LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Students, teachers, public officials and aerospace enthusiasts piled into the University of Louisville's Gheens Science Hall & Rauch Planetarium Monday night to celebrate space exploration -- and to remember a national tragedy.

The Challenger Center for Space Science Education, a Washington DC-based non-profit educational organization with over 40 locations throughout the world, held its first-ever international conference at the planetarium.

The organization vows to, "engage students and teachers in dynamic, hands-on exploration and discovery opportunities that strengthen knowledge in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, inspire students to pursue careers in these fields, and provide an outlet to learn and apply important life skills."

Attendees gathered in the lobby of the planetarium for food and cocktails, then poured into the theater itself where they were treated to an educational pep rally of sorts from local officials.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer -- fresh from the PGA Championship at Valhalla the night before -- touted his "55,000 Degrees" program, which aims to to increase the number of college degrees earned by Louisville residents to 55,000 before 2020.

"It's always interesting how much people pay attention to sports," Fischer said, referencing the PGA, "whereas the real business of the world is happening with efforts like what you all do in the classrooms every day, making sure that our kids are prepared to participate in a 21st Century economy. If we could just get 20 percent of the focus our country puts on entertainment and sports into education, that would be a good start."

The room erupted in applause.

Heather French Henry, a former Miss America who was recently appointed commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs, told the crowd that $5 billion pours into the state from the aerospace industry -- and she hopes to increase that number.

“When people think of Kentucky, you think of – probably – three things. You think of race horses, of course. You think of our Kentucky water, which is called bourbon," she said, invoking laughter. "And then you usually think of basketball…things like that. But no one ever really thinks of aerospace and defense contractors. So one of our initiatives in the future is to help package Kentucky so that the Department of Defense can see what a vibrant state we do have here."

Laura Benson Jones, founder of Cardinal Wings flight school on Bowman Field and board member of Louisville's Challenger Center at The Academy @ Shawnee, recounted a story of how her father, Metro Councilman Stuart Benson, took a second job when she was a teenager so she could take flying lessons.

"I'm so happy to be a part of the Challenger Learning Center because not every dad has the opportunity to go take that second job or to give a child the experience that I was given," she said, her voice full of emotion. "But at the Challenger Learning Center, every child can have this experience."

"We don't care if these kids become astronauts or pilots," she added. "But we do care…that they find that connection – that personal power within themselves to believe that they can do something tremendous."

And there was an announcement of some importance to the armchair space explorer: Twyman Clements is a space systems engineer at Kentucky Space, a non-profit consortium of private and public universities and corporations that designs and implements aerospace missions. Clements has experience in over 10 high-altitude balloon launches, and has worked with others to design several cubesats -- small cube-shaped satellites -- that have recently been launched aboard converted intercontinental ballistic missiles.

"What we're here to announce with our partnership that we've developed, is taking those designs from those satellites and those high-altitude balloons and those space stations payloads, and working with the Challenger Center at Shawnee to develop curriculum around those," he told a cheering crowd. "We're gonna take those and build modules for these students to actually build things and build up actual satellites in their labs."

Remembering a tragedy

But amid the celebration, a shadow hung over the group. The Challenger Center itself was born of tragedy and triumph, and those in attendance were about to hear from a keynote speaker who had a front-row seat to both.

Barbara Morgan was an elementary school teacher from McCall, Idaho in 1984, when then-President Ronald Reagan announced the Teacher in Space Project -- an ambitious effort to send a teacher into space aboard the space shuttle Challenger. Thousands of teachers applied for the coveted space shuttle seat. That group was eventually whittled down to 10 finalists, until two were selected: Christa McAuliffe would be America's Teacher in Space, while Morgan would serve as the backup.

"They were marvelous," said June Scobee Rodgers, wife of shuttle commander Dick Scobee, who perished in the Challenger disaster. "They quickly became rock stars – not only in the astronaut office, but nationally, on all of the television and talk show programs. They were tremendous.”

But of course history records that on Jan. 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after launch, killing all seven astronauts on board, including McAuliffe.

On Monday night, when Morgan rose to take the podium, she paid tribute to her fallen friend.

"I'm here – just like all of you are – because of the space shuttle Challenger crew, and the Challenger families in particular," Morgan said. "They are the guiding lights in my life."

"We all know about the Challenger accident," Morgan said. "We know that in 1986, it stunned the world. It shook our nation. And it crushed everyone close to the space program and to the crew. And everyone was asking, ‘What do we do now? What should we do?' So what do we do? What did we do? Well, the nation's kids were all watching to see what we adults do when things go horribly and heartbreakingly wrong. Do we adults just quit? Did our country just quit? No. We considered the real work of space exploration and we decided that it was definitely and obviously worth it to our country and to the future."

After the tragedy, Morgan went back to teaching in McCall, Idaho, and promptly vanished from public life -- that is until 1998, when she was contacted by NASA and invited to return and join the astronaut class. She was originally scheduled to fly aboard the space shuttle in 2004 -- that is, until the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia, which killed all the astronauts aboard. 

Shared experience

It would be 2007 before she would launch aboard space shuttle Endeavour on a mission to the International Space Station -- and Morgan was eager to share the experience of spaceflight with the crowd.

"It was tremendous," Morgan said. "People will ask you when you're strapped in, and for many months before, 'When you launch, are you gonna be scared?' And then after you launch, they will ask, 'When you launched, were you scared?' And I can tell you this is what you'll say: No, you weren't. Although you might say you were alert on the launch pad."

"There are always reminders of the risks, of course," she added. "Our NASA technicians tell you that everything has been made as safe as possible. And then they leave you and go three and a half miles away…for their own safety."

Laughter from the crowd.

"Because the shuttle's big orange tank is fueled with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen at hundreds of degrees below zero, the whole enormous spaceship, when you crawl in it, is creaking and groaning," she said. "It definitely gives new meaning of surround sound."

Morgan explained that when the shuttle launched, it created 7.5 million pounds of thrust, and that it was already moving at 100 mph when it cleared the launch tower. She said the solid rocket boosters "go off like 4th of July skyrockets"  and they don't stop until 3.5 minutes later.

"You're going straight up – you're rolling over as you go – and it's roar, and rumble, and racket around you, as you accelerate to 17,500 miles an hour," Morgan said. "What I felt was this enormous push on my back, like the hand of God on your back, just pushing you as hard as he or she can. It almost felt like the orbiter was pushing so hard it could push right through you. It didn't hurt or anything, but you definitely knew you were going somewhere. And the good news is, it doesn't push through you. It takes you with it."

"I had a huge smile on my face – which of course was plastered there because of the massive acceleration," she added.

As huge still images and silent videos appeared on the planetarium ceiling above her, Morgan told the crowd that they finally reached orbit eight minutes after launch -- but the only way she could tell that they were moving was if she looked out the window and saw the earth's landscape drifting above them.

But weightlessness caused her some problems -- at least at first.

"For me, zero-G was making feel like I was upside down," she said. "I didn't shed that upside down feeling for the first couple of days. Once I did that, then it doesn't matter – and that's when spaceflight gets really fun."

After two days, she said the shuttle began to approach the International Space Station, a "speck of light" that she called "an engineering marvel" with a size that exceeds that of a standard American football field.

"Think about it," she said. "Sixteen different countries working together with different languages, different cultures, different engineering and construction techniques, different measurement systems, different ways of thinking, different ways of negotiating. And constructing the space station: building, launching and adding one section at a time, out in the vacuum of space, in mircrogravity, in extreme temperatures, extreme lighting conditions…extreme pressures, orbital mechanics – which is very tricky – people working in awkward, bulky spacesuits, and on and on and on. It's a very tall order."

When they finally docked with the space station, Morgan said she was happy to see friends and colleagues she hadn't seen in months -- and everyone had a camera in his or her hand.

"Our Russian colleagues – Fyodor and Oleg -- had saved some of their finest Russian foods for us," Morgan said. "These were all fancy spreads and pates. One was caviar. One was fish. One was chicken, roast beef. There was cheese."

"They loved our American tortillas and begged us to make sure and leave whatever we had left on board with them," she said. "Before we did that, we ended up having this international meal together of very fancy Russian pates on American tortillas."

So what is the view from space like? Morgan said they were "amazing," and said she often volunteered to put the shades up on the windows during the crew's sleep period so she could steal glances at the earth.

"Australia is huge – and it's red," she said. "It's so huge and red that when you fly over Australia, you feel like you're flying over Mars."

And when it comes to the emptiness of space itself, Morgan says none of the photographs ever do it justice.

"Space is a black that I have never seen anywhere here on earth before," she said. "It's interesting because I've seen hundreds of pictures, like you have, that our astronauts take of our beautiful planet up in space, but in space it just doesn't look the same as those pictures."

"It's a vacuum, after all. And you can tell it goes on forever and you can see it's a vacuum – especially when you're on the dark side of the planet and you see just millions of lights of stars hung like pinpoints on invisible strings. You know it goes on forever."

"You'll have to use your imagination, but the best I can do is tell you it's kind of creamy, so I call it a creamy black. But not like creamy black coffee."

Laughter from the crowd.

But the most mesmerizing part of the address -- according to this reporter -- was Morgan's description of the view of the Milky Way from inside the space shuttle. Morgan said her crew turned off all of the lights, made the shuttle's interior completely dark, then looked out the window to see the Milky Way's arm itself.

"The Milky Way looks like God took a paint brush and kept dipping it over and over again and just going back and forth and back and forth. It's solid white. It's really amazing. The whole universe seen from orbit is more than awe-inspiring. To me, it looks like awe itself."

For more information on the Challenger Center, click HERE.

For more on the Challenger disaster, visit SpaceCraft Films by clicking HERE.

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