Earlier this week, Jane Smith-Wolcott reached into a box of photos she'd pulled from a closet in her mother's Charlotte home. Instantly, she recognized the sorrow that has trailed her family for 25 years.
The photos brought back that cold Florida morning on Jan. 28, 1986, when she and her three children — and a startled nation watching on live TV — were wrapped in grief as the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff, killing her husband, shuttle pilot Mike Smith, and six crewmates.
One photo crystallizes the moment, when time stopped for her family in a cloud of smoke, flames and water vapor. It's of a memorial service for Mike at Calvary United Methodist Church on West Boulevard, where he and Jane married in 1967 before Mike became a Navy test pilot and an astronaut in 1980.
In countless other ways, she's constantly surrounded by memories and reminded of the very public tragedy that cost the nation seven heroes. On a shelf in her mother's home are the books about the space shuttle. Nearby hangs a mounted insignia from the STS-15-L crew that included Ron McNair of Lake City, S.C., and schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. The patch was in a canvas pack found floating on the Atlantic.
Each time there is another national tragedy — 9/11, the disintegration of the Columbia shuttle in 2003, and now Tucson — her sadness returns for the families of the dead. For the country.
Yet she needs no reminders that today is the 25th anniversary of NASA's most visible failure.
"I think about Mike every day," said Smith-Wolcott, now 65, happily remarried to Dixon Wolcott, a Norfolk, Va., obstetrician-gynecologist who was Mike's friend at the U.S. Naval Academy. "That day is part of my family's history. There is still a hole left by that day, but I don't think our lives have been defined by sadness.
"It's OK to feel sadness. It's all right to have memories."
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