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NORMAL - Alex Demont of Normal wants to be an astronaut.

"I'd like to see the Earth or a hurricane from space. But I wouldn't want the same thing to happen as on the Challenger mission," the 10-year-old Prairieland Elementary School fifth-grader said.

Learning about the shuttle explosion that happened 20 years ago today has shown him the risks of space, but his teacher's enthusiasm for space exploration also has inspired him. His class was one of many science classes that spent Friday learning about the Challenger mission and its Teacher in Space program.

Only 73 seconds into its flight on Jan. 28, 1986, the space shuttle exploded in a disaster witnessed by millions of people watching on televisions around the world. The failure of a booster seal led to the death of seven astronauts, including Christa McAuliffe, who was to be the first teacher in space.

In the spirit of McAuliffe, area teachers remembered where they were that day, how it felt and how it affected their teaching.

Demont's teacher, Deb Foster, said she was taking her income tax to be done that day, and she watched the explosion on a small television.

"I remember feeling great sorrow," said Foster, who remembers the glory days of the moon race.

"As a child in the '60s, it was a really big deal to watch blastoffs," she said. "We were all so interested in space."

Foster, whose daughter seriously considered a career as an astronaut, collected space pictures and memorabilia and borrowed items from her daughter's collection to show students.

Foster is preparing the class for a "mission" at the Challenger Space Center at Prairie Aviation Museum this spring. The center uses simulated space missions to teach science, math, problem-solving and teamwork skills.

She has a sparkle in her eye as she talks of space. So do her students.

"I really liked the stargazing last night. We had a really big telescope and saw the rings on Saturn," Alex Demont said of a nighttime class outing.

He also loved sitting in the "star lab," makeshift, inflatable planetarium Foster made based on ideas she picked up at a science and math conference.

Students in Jan Orcutt's fifth-grade science class at Pepper Ridge Elementary School were most curious about why the disaster happened.

She explained that it was due to a failure in an O-ring seal on one of the booster rockets, and they talked about how metal expands and contracts as temperatures change. The cold weather that day was blamed for the failure.

Orcutt was teaching science to special-education children in Michigan, and she saw the Challenger explosion with her students.

"It was probably the worst day of teaching I ever had," she said.

Foster's students also learned about the qualities astronauts should have. They were given biographies and chose who would be a good candidate to fly a five-year mission to Mars.

The top two people chosen turned out to be football star Doug Flutie and television host Oprah Winfrey. McAuliffe and fellow Challenger astronaut Ron McNair were chosen by half the students.

Sydney Dillion said she picked only people who weren't parents.

"I wouldn't like it if my mom left us for five years," the 10- year-old from Normal said.

Justin Segobiano, 11, of Normal said McAuliffe was "pretty cool," and he would "feel really good" if his teacher could go into space - as long as it was safe.

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