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Tragedy won't tame teachers' tall dreams

By MELANIE AVE, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 2, 2003

PALM HARBOR -- Chuck Cramer, a teacher who dreamed of rocketing into space aboard the shuttle, was about to walk outside Saturday morning to watch Columbia sail overhead.

But instead of the shuttle came a chilling phone call from his son.

" 'Daddy, it's happened again,' " Cramer recalled his son saying. "The first thing I said was, 'Oh no, not again.' "

Less than two weeks ago, local teachers like Cramer began applying for NASA's new program to recruit teachers as astronauts -- 17 years after teacher Christa McAuliffe and six crewmates died in the Challenger disaster.

In November, McAuliffe's backup, Barbara Morgan, was scheduled to be the first educator to fly into space.

Hundreds of teachers had applied for the Educator Astronaut Program, which promised to send three to six teachers into space each year beginning in 2005. Applications were due by April 30.

On Saturday, many of those teachers said they will not give up their dreams and hope NASA will not abort its push to put educators in orbit.

"I'd go if they let me, even after today," said Palm Harbor University High School physics teacher Marc Wilson, 52. "I was in the service from Vietnam to Desert Storm. I'm not going to be disillusioned by something like this."

Cramer, a Dunedin High School algebra teacher, said he cried while watching news accounts of the explosion.

The Ozona teacher said he vividly recalls where he was when the Challenger exploded. Now he'll never forget how he spent Saturday glued to TV coverage.

"That's all I've been doing," he said. "All my friends are calling saying, 'I'm glad you weren't there.' "

George Fatolitis, 44, a science teacher at Kennedy Middle School in Clearwater, said he was waiting to hear the sonic boom, a normal occurrence when the shuttle re-enters the atmosphere.

When he didn't, he wondered what was happening.

Fatolitis, a self-described space exploration historian who calls famous test pilot Chuck Yeager his hero, said he believes the space program should press on.

"Nobody wants the space program to be discontinued, especially those who lost their lives," said Fatolitis, who plans to apply for the teacher astronauts program.

-Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or .

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