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Cleveland State president recalls responding to Space Shuttle Challenger disaster

Harlan M. Sands was part of a training drill during the blast, and his crew was later called in to help search for the remains of those lost.

CLEVELAND — The eyes of the world were on the Space Shuttle Challenger as it flew for the stars on Jan. 28, 1986.

Among them were those of Cleveland State University’s current president, Harlan M. Sands, who would help in the recovery that day.

"It was such a tough day," he recalled in an interview with 3News.

RELATED: NASA Challenger disaster remembered 35 years later

Sands was a first division officer training aboard the USS Guam off the coast of North Carolina and just 23 years old. Like much of the country, he was watching the events unfold live on television, when the call came in within 30 seconds of the blast to respond to it.

"I could remember it like it was yesterday, being out on that ship," Sands said. "We didn’t know anything when we went out there. It was a rescue mission, and that was our first goal, was to rescue."

That would change.

"It was only after we spent some time on the scene did we realize that it became a retrieval mission."

Aboard the Challenger that cold January morning was Akron native Judith Resnik, a Firestone High School graduate who had been recognized at an early age for her "intellectual brilliance. Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from New Hampshire who was to be the country’s first civilian in space, was also part of the crew.

Credit: NASA via AP
FILE - This photo provided by NASA shows the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger mission 51L. All seven members of the crew were killed when the shuttle exploded during launch on Jan. 28, 1986. Front row from left are Michael J. Smith, Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, and Ronald E. McNair. Front row from left are Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, and Judith Resnik.

On Thursday, they and the five others who perished in the explosion were named in a ceremony at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, which also honored the crews of the Apollo 1 and Space Shuttle Columbia disasters. As America plans a return to the moon and eventually Mars, others are also willing to pay the price.

"Because there’s a subset of us who embrace risk if the risk will bring you reward of something that has never been achieved before," renowned astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson said.

Just this week, NASA conducted the first spacewalk of the year, with the next scheduled for Feb. 1. Astronauts are working to complete a long-term battery upgrade, with the future in mind.

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