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Posted: Sunday, September 6, 1998 1:00 am

GENESEO -- Middle school students, who were infants and toddlers when one of the worst accidents in the history of the U.S. space program happened, now have a chance to view an actual piece of the wreckage.

Geneseo's new middle school is hosting, for roughly one month, a monument to the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded shortly after takeoff Jan. 28, 1986.

Millions of Americans were watching on television as Challenger exploded, killing all seven crew members on board. One of those crew members was Christa McAuliffe -- the first non-astronaut ever selected for a space voyage.

Ms. McAuliffe had been selected for NASA's Teacher in Space project, which was designed to bring space-science lessons to Earth from the orbiting shuttle, via satellite. Her junior high-age students were among those watching as the shuttle exploded.

Aboard the shuttle with Ms. McAuliffe was a ``Learning and Liberty'' flag, supplied by the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA). The 5-by-7-inch flag survived the explosion, and was recovered later with other wreckage from the Challenger.

NASA returned the flag to NSPRA in 1987. NSPRA, with corporate help, turned the flag into a ``Life and Liberty'' display honoring both the role of education in the United States and the sacrifices of the Challenger crew.

On the granite display, three bronze children's hands support a bronze copy of the flag. A plaque contains photographs of the Challenger crew, as well as the actual flag.

The display includes information on the meaning of the flag, which was designed in 1985 to honor NSPRA's 50th anniversary.

Geneseo school officials last November requested the display, which is available to schools throughout the nation, for the opening of the district's new middle school.

``I thought it was a part of history for kids to see right before their eyes,'' Harold Ford, Geneseo superintendent, said. He said he also wanted students to understand what Christa McAuliffe and the astronauts were trying to do, and the risks they were taking, in the flight.

``It should put some pride in kids,'' he said.

Middle school principal Gary Zum Mallen said he hoped students understand the tie between knowledge and liberty.

``If we're going to have American liberties, we have to have an educated citizenry,'' he said. ``We also hope they gain some knowledge as to who Christa McAuliffe was.''

An Elgin school official brought the display to Illinois from Florida, and has been NSPRA's scheduling coordinator while the monument is in the state.

Mr. Ford and district employee Bill Pettifer went to Elgin to pick up the display -- the next school to display the monument will pick it up at Geneseo, he said.

While it's too early in the school year for many of the students to have learned about the Challenger explosion, some Geneseo students who've been to space camp know its history.

Kori Roys is one of those students -- he's bounced in a simulation of one-eighth gravity and participated in a mock takeoff.

``I thought it was pretty cool it's in our school,'' he said. ``It looks really good there. It's really cool the little flag on it is probably one of the only things that survived the explosion.''

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