CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The children of the seven astronauts who died aboard shuttle Columbia three years ago received condolences from around the world, but one heartfelt message was especially unique.
The letter, written by Challenger commander Dick Scobee's daughter, Kathy, spoke of the difficulty of dealing personally with a tragedy so public.
"Everyone in the country felt like it happened to them too," she wrote. "And it did. The Challenger explosion was a national tragedy. Everyone saw it. Everyone hurt. Everyone grieved. Everyone wanted to help.
"But that did not make it any easier for me. They wanted to say goodbye to American heroes. I just wanted to say goodbye to my daddy."
Kathy's mother, June Scobee Rodgers, read part of the letter yesterday at a poignant memorial service commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Challenger accident.
About 200 people gathered under overcast skies by a memorial mirror at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex to also celebrate the lives and legacies of other Americans who died trying to advance space exploration.
The crowd included spouses, children and siblings of the Challenger, Columbia and Apollo 1 crews.
Scobee Rodgers eulogized the fallen astronauts as men and women who understood the risks and accepted them for a greater good.
"Without risks, there is no discovery, there is no new knowledge, there is no bold adventure, all of which help the human soul to soar," she said. "And the greatest risk is to take no risk."
Central Floridians touched by the tragedy also came out to show their respects to the fallen heroes.
Palm Bay resident Lisa Maldony brought her 5-year-old son, Harrison. He attends kindergarten at Christa McAuliffe Elementary, named after the schoolteacher who died aboard Challenger.
"I was 12 years old at the time it happened," Maldony said. "I think they were heroes who gave up their lives for mankind."
Alvin Rupp traveled all the way from Chico, Calif. He is "commander" of a Star Trek fan chapter named the U.S.S. Onizuka to honor Challenger astronaut Ellison Onizuka.
"After Challenger, there were a lot of people who wanted to shut down the space program," Rupp said. "But I believe the destiny of the human race is out in space."
Michael Cabbage writes for the Orlando Sentinel.