Hearts are heavy on the Space Coast as NASA marks the most somber week in its history Wednesday.
NASA's annual Day of Remembrance began with a ceremony in front of the Space Mirror Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex containing the names of the 17 astronauts lost in the Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia disasters.
- Apollo 1 — On Jan. 27, 1967 a deadly launch pad fire killed the crew's three astronauts.
- Challenger — On Jan. 28, 1986, space shuttle Challenger exploded seconds after liftoff, killing all seven crew members on board.
- Columbia — On February 2, 2003, the seven-member Columbia crew was lost when the shuttle disintegrated returning from orbit.
Wednesday morning, those 17 astronauts, along with pioneering test pilots who paved the way for space travel, were remembered as a wreath was placed at the foot of the memorial.
"We think about it. We reflect very hard about what we can do today to prevent them in the future. Space is hard," said Janet Petro, deputy director of the Kennedy Space Center.
"I definitely wanted to come here and see this," says Linda Sajovic.
Sajovic remembers this day very well. Jan. 28 is her birthday.
The same day Shuttle Challenger exploded seconds after liftoff, killing all seven crew members on board.
"You really felt that emotion, it's unspeakable. It's on my birthday, and I thought, 'I'll always remember that'," she said.
And for the first time since moving to The Villages 15 years ago, she and husband Bud came to pay their respects at the memorial dedicated to fallen astronauts.
Visitors also came to honor the crew of Columbia, including a 44-member high school delegation from Israel, here to honor the first Israeli astronaut, Illan Roman.
"We have to honor this man and his Columbia friends," said Israeli student Harel Peretz. "They passed away. So, it's not very fun to be here, but it's a great honor to be here to respect him."
Ramon, his fellow astronauts, and the pioneering test pilots who also perished, paved the way for space exploration.
Each were remembered as a wreath was placed at the foot of the memorial.
Visitors also placed flowers on the fence surrounding the Space Mirror Memorial.
This weekend, the fallen astronauts will also be honored at Titusville's Space View Park.
On Jan. 27, 1967, the three-member crew of Apollo 1 — Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee — were inside the capsule during a dress rehearsal, when a fire ignited inside the oxygen-rich atmosphere, killing all three men.
The program was suspended for nearly two years to fix major flaws in the capsule's design.
On Jan. 28, 1986, space shuttle Challenger lifted off on the well-publicized "Teacher in Space" mission. Among the seven-member crew was Christa McAuliffe, the first educator selected to go to orbit.
Then, 73 seconds after launch, a seal on one of the solid rocket boosters failed. The booster detached, the external tank broke apart, and the shuttle was destroyed.
At a ceremony Tuesday in front of the Space Mirror memorial, a bell rang seven times, one for each astronaut killed on board Challenger.
"I came to realize I never really came to grips with it," said Hugh Harris, formerly of NASA Public Affairs.
Harris is now retired from NASA, but was working that fateful day. He said he and the staff began working round the clock to deal with the disaster seen by millions on live television.
Harris has written a book about the experience, Challenger: An American Tragedy - The Inside Store from Launch Control.
"What made Challenger grip the American people was that it was the first time we had people die during a spaceflight," said Harris.
Astronauts Ellison S. Onizuka, Greg Jarvis, Judy Resnik, Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee and Ron McNair also died in the Challenger disaster.
Seventeen short years later, tragedy struck again.
On Feb. 1, 2003, space shuttle Columbia was minutes away from landing at the Kennedy Space Center after a successful 16-day mission, when the orbiter disintegrated over Texas, killing all seven astronauts on board: David M. Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P. Anderson, William McCool and Ilan Ramon, a payload specialist from the Israeli Space Agency.
Investigators later learned a piece of foam from the external tank struck the shuttle during liftoff.