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Shuttle Disaster

Classrooms lose a bond to space

Classes who followed the shuttle's progress discuss the tragedy. One was at Cape Canaveral Saturday.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2003

When Columbia shot off into space on Jan. 16, Pasco County teacher Janice Hutinger felt part of her blast off as well. She counted astronaut David Brown as among her oldest friends.

They had met in the late 1970s as young performers in a small traveling circus. Brown, Hutinger recalled, rode a unicycle and juggled. She walked the high wire and performed on the trapeze.

Although she hadn't seen Brown in years, "it was one of those connections that stays together for a lifetime," said Hutinger, a special education teacher at San Antonio Elementary in northeast Pasco. "We traveled the country together in an old school bus."

When her students and fellow teachers gathered around their "Liberty Garden" Monday morning, Hutinger shared with them parts of an e-mail that Brown had sent to friends while on board Columbia.

"We feel like he's our astronaut," Hutinger said.

The mood was similarly somber at schools around the Tampa Bay area Monday as students and teachers gathered to reflect and honor the seven astronauts who died Saturday.

Some teachers, like Hutinger, shared personal connections to the shuttle and its crew. Others held discussions with students who wanted to talk and learn about the tragedy.

The morning show at Stewart Middle School in Tampa was dominated by news clips about Columbia, which included statements by President Bush and observations from astronauts.

Space exploration is a common theme at Stewart, a magnet school for math, science and technology. The school also is home to the district's 13-year-old bus that resembles the space shuttle, the Eagle Explorer.

During Lynn McDaniel's science class, which focuses on aerospace research, students talked about the shuttle instead of presenting their reports on the international space station. On Friday, McDaniel had given each of her students a photograph of the Columbia crew.

Seventh-grader Maggie Goldgof, 12, said the mission held special meaning for her as a Jew because of astronaut Ilan Ramon, a colonel in Israel's air force who was the country's first citizen to fly into space.

"With all the war that is going on there so much, this was the happy thing," she said. "It was important to my family. Then suddenly this happened."

In Pinellas, second-grade teacher Carroll Bauer is looking forward to taking 26 North Shore Elementary School students to the Kennedy Space Center on Friday. The trip has been planned since last fall, but she expects it to be more meaningful to her school's Young Astronauts Club in the wake of the shuttle disaster.

"I think emotions are going to be raw, and the people who are leading us . . . are going to have a lot to say," she said. "It's going to bring it close to home for these children."

The disaster hit close for chemistry teacher Terri Granger and four of her students. The group from Land O'Lakes High in Pasco County was at Cape Canaveral Saturday, meeting with NASA scientists, when Columbia burned up over Texas.

For three years, Granger's students have helped NASA scientists grow protein crystals in small glass tubes. Astronauts take the tubes into space, and study how the crystals grow in zero gravity. On Saturday, Granger and her students stood on the beach with NASA scientists awaiting Columbia's approach.

"We just waited and waited," Granger said. "It was 9:16, 9:17, 9:18 and there was nothing. Then one of the scientists came out and said, "It's disappeared.' "

Although the exciting day took a tragic turn, the students carried on with their protein crystal experiments.

"The scientists talked about what happened, and what it might mean for the space program," said student Michael Vente, 16. "I'll always remember that day. Even though lives were lost and all that information was lost, you still have to be optimistic that something good will come out of it."

For Citrus County principal Terretta Charles, the disaster brought back terrible memories of the 1986 Challenger explosion.

During the morning announcements, she asked everyone at Forest Ridge Elementary to join hands and honor "our fallen heroes, our fallen astronauts."

Later, Charles recalled her days as principal of a school in the San Fernando Valley in California. One of her teachers there was married to an astronaut on the doomed Challenger.

"We were very close to him," Charles said, "and he blew up on the Challenger."

-- Times staff writers Monique Fields, Jim Ross and Paulette Lash Ritchie contributed to this report.

A tribute to 'Columbia'

Xpressions, the St. Petersburg Times showcase of young readers' art and writing, plans a special page about the space shuttle Columbia.

Submit your poetry, prose and artwork for consideration to "A tribute to Columbia," c/o Xpress, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. Work must be received by Feb. 12. Please include your name, age, grade, school and a phone number if we need to reach you.

Only artwork will be returned, and only if you provide a complete return mailing address.

You also may e-mail submissions to with "A tribute to Columbia" in the subject line. E-mail users, please note: We cannot accept attachments.

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