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Willie Geist remembers 'brave' Challenger crew on anniversary of tragedy

The Sunday TODAY anchor recalled being home sick from fifth grade on the day the space shuttle exploded in 1986.
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger is seen in this 1986 file photo released by NASA.AP
/ Source: TODAY

Like many kids who grew up in the 1980s, Willie Geist can still vividly remember the day the nation suffered a terrible loss as the space shuttle Challenger broke apart during its flight, killing all seven crew members.

The Sunday TODAY anchor paid tribute to the Challenger crew on the 33rd anniversary of the tragedy on Monday, sharing his remembrances of a dark day for America's space program.

Millions of schoolchildren gathered to watch the live broadcast of the launch because a member of the crew, New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe, was expected to become the first teacher to ever travel to space.

The shuttle exploded just 73 seconds after liftoff, killing everyone on board.

Willie was a fifth-grader who was home sick from school on the day of the launch and watched it with his mother.

"I remember saying to my mom as my awe turned to shock, 'I think something is wrong,''' he wrote in an Instagram post.

Willie remembered the words of former President Ronald Reagan, who spoke to the nation after the disaster.

"That night, President Reagan addressed kids like me directly, 'I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle's takeoff,''' he wrote. "I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery.

"It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them."

Five astronauts and two payload specialists were killed in the explosion, which was determined to have been caused by a faulty part that failed during the unusually cold temperatures in Cape Canaveral, Florida, at the time of the flight.

In addition to McAuliffe, pilot Mike Smith, commander Dick Scobee, mission specialists Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka and Ron McNair, and payload specialist Greg Jarvis also lost their lives.

"May the 7 members of the Challenger crew continue to Rest In Peace,'' Willie wrote.

The tragedy continues to resonate decades later. Beyonce came under fire for sampling audio from the disaster in her 2013 song "XO," and the saga has also been made into a movie called "The Challenger Disaster" starring Dean Cain that was released last week.

Many people are sharing their own memories of that fateful day on TODAY's Facebook page.