A single Day of Remembrance ceremony was held today at NASA headquarters in Washington, to observe the three darkest moments of the American space program, including the 26th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger disaster.


Seven astronauts died on January 28, 1986, when Challenger exploded just after liftoff.  It was NASA's first in-flight calamity, and it dealt an especially severe blow to the millions of teachers and students watching on TV to see Christa McAuliffe, a civilian high school teacher from New Hampshire, become NASA's first Teacher in Space.

Today's commemoration also noted the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 1 disaster in 1967, when three astronauts died in a fire that broke out inside their module during a ground test a month before launch.

And Feb. 1 will be the ninth anniversary of the space shuttle Columbia accident, in which seven astronauts died when the shuttle broke up in the skies over east Texas during the return from orbit.

President Barack Obama released a statement to mark the somber occasion.

"On this solemn day, we join the NASA family and all Americans in honoring the brave men and women who gave their lives in the pursuit of space exploration.

It is important to remember that pushing the boundaries of space requires great courage and has come with a steep price three times in our Nation’s history – for the crews of Apollo 1 and the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia.

The loss of these pioneers is felt every day by their family, friends, and colleagues, but we take comfort in the knowledge that their spirit will continue to inspire us to new heights.

Today, our Nation is pursuing an ambitious path that honors these heroes, builds on their sacrifices, and promises to expand the limits of innovation as we venture farther into space than we have ever gone before.

The men and women who lost their lives in the name of space exploration helped get us to this day, and it is our duty to honor them the way they would have wanted to be honored – by focusing our sights on the next horizon."

via President Obama Honors NASA's Fallen Astronauts | Apollo 1, Space Shuttle Challenger & Columbia | NASA Day of Remembrance | Space.com.

The space shuttle Columbia disaster was especially heart wrenching here in east Texas.  Thousands of volunteers fanned out across the piney woods to help in the search for bodies and shuttle debris. The Lufkin Civic Center became the "Command Center" for the search effort.

Incidentally, NASA says to date, less than half the debris from shuttle Columbia has been recovered.  The remainder was either burned up during reentry or is still where it landed in Texas and Louisiana.

It's very probable that a hundred years from now people will still be stumbling across bits and pieces of shuttle debris out there in the woods, and fishing up small pieces out of lakes and rivers.