Hometowns Grieve For Seven 'Pioneers'

By Dale Russakoff and Cristine Russell
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 29, 1986

Until yesterday, they were "the six other astronauts" who would accompany a celebrated school teacher named Christa McAuliffe when she became the first private citizen to travel in space.

But when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in a fireball over the Atlantic, the nation suddenly became aware of the entire crew, mourning its members, in the words of President Reagan, as "heroes" and brave "pioneers."

Besides carrying the first teacher-astronaut, the shuttle mission was remembered yesterday as having one of the most diverse crews in the history of space travel, including four veterans of previous shuttle flights.

There was engineer Judith A. Resnik, 36, the nation's second woman in space; physicist Ronald E. McNair, 35, the second black American in space; and engineer Ellison S. Onizuka, 39, the first Asian-American astronaut. The other veteran was Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, 46, the flight commander.

There was also rookie astronaut Michael J. Smith, 40, raised near a tiny airport in Beaufort, N.C., where his lifelong dream of space travel was born; and Hughes Aircraft Co. engineer Gregory B. Jarvis, 41, chosen as mission payload specialist from among more than 600 competitors at Hughes, known to friends as an enthusiastic jogger, skier, backpacker, cyclist and classical guitarist.

"It's a tragic loss," said John Turner, associate dean of the graduate school at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where McNair earned his PhD in 1976. "It was a significant combination of people which really symbolizes what this country is all about -- a diversity of races, sexes and vocations."

Like McAuliffe, all had worked to inspire youngsters to reach for great achievements, even as they piled up accomplishments in their own professions. All were as celebrated as McAuliffe in their own communities. And their towns had responded with the same affection and pride that Concord, N.H., and much of the nation showed McAuliffe.

There was a Judith Resnik Day in Akron, Ohio, after her first flight. There is a Ron McNair Boulevard in his hometown of Lake City, S.C. Onizuka's high school in Kealakekua, Hawaii, held special assemblies when he returned from space, as Auburn High in Washington state did for Scobee -- the sorts of heroes' welcomes the entire nation gave to the first astronauts.

Scobee carried an Auburn pennant into space on his first mission in 1984 and brought it back to the school, where it still hangs. And Smith had planned to carry with him a miniature town flag with the gold seal of Beaufort and to bring it back to the fishing town of 4,500 for a gala reception and high school commencement address in June.

Yesterday, the town flag on the waterfront was flying at half mast. "The town is really in a state of shock," said Beaufort Mayor Joyce Fulford, who had known Smith since his boyhood. "They have been so supportive of Mike in this venture."

The national tragedy was mourned in deeply personal ways by all those who knew the victims or felt a personal connection to them.

Millions of American viewers witnessed the scene at Christa McAuliffe's Concord High School, where 200 pupils and teachers watched in horror as the shuttle exploded. There were no cameras to record a similar scene that took place at Resnik's alma mater, Firestone High School in Akron.

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© 1986 The Washington Post Company