- Associated Press - Saturday, January 30, 2016

PADUCAH, Ky. (AP) - In Roy Hensel’s fifth-grade classroom at Lone Oak Intermediate hangs a bulletin board with autographed pictures of American presidents, but one framed item stands out from the rest.

It’s a certificate from NASA thanking Hensel for his participation in the 1986 Teacher in Space program, the program that put New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe aboard the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle 30 years ago Thursday.

“That could have been me,” Hensel said, his disbelief still evident.

In 1986 he entered NASA’s nationwide competition to teach lessons from space aboard the Challenger and was named a finalist. But ultimately it was McAuliffe who was strapped into a seat on Challenger’s lower deck, astronaut Ronald McNair to her left and satellite engineer Gregory Jarvis to her right.

When the Challenger was engulfed in fiery vapor and debris 46,000 feet above Cape Canaveral, Florida, only 73 seconds after liftoff that day, Hensel was with his third-grade students in the Carlisle County Elementary School cafeteria. When one of his fellow teachers asked him if he’d heard the news that the shuttle had exploded, he thought she was making an awful joke.

All seven passengers aboard Challenger were killed. It was America’s first loss of astronauts in flight.

The following school day, Hensel shared with his students one of his many - and now one of his most cherished - pieces of collected history, a letter from McNair, the second African American astronaut in space. He was 36, about the same age as Hensel at the time.

For going on 50 years Hensel has been collecting autographs and letters from presidents and historic figures, including astronauts. He also has signed portraits of Sally Ride, the first American woman in space; Guion Bluford, the first African American in space, as well as the Apollo 11 astronauts.

Hensel wrote to McNair about a year before the Challenger disaster, asking if McNair could write to his students about what it takes to become an astronaut.

“He was just one of those people who was so kind, not just to write back but to hand-write a letter,” Hensel said. “He sent brochures and information about space and about the astronaut program. And he gave me an autographed picture, which I gave to somebody years ago, but I still have the letter. That’s what I wanted to keep.”

In his letter McNair told Hensel’s students that becoming an astronaut requires knowledge of all kinds: physics, astronomy, medicine, oceanography, geology, flying, scuba and space shuttle systems, among “many other exciting and interesting things.”

“No, you can’t learn it overnight, but many years of enjoyable, fun study helps prepare one,” McNair wrote. “You must enjoy learning new things and seeking new knowledge. Hope to see some of you on board the shuttle one of these days.”

As Thursday’s somber anniversary neared, Hensel posted to Facebook a photo of himself sharing that letter with his students. The photo originally ran in The Paducah Sun Jan. 30, 1986. Within hours of posting the photo, several of Hensel’s friends and colleagues shared it, and it eventually made its way to the boy pictured cheesing for the camera to Hensel’s right.

A grown-up Nathan Myers, or “Smiley” as he says Hensel dubbed him in the third grade, answered Hensel’s post with one of his own from his home in Fort Worth, Texas. The day that photo was taken was one of Myers’ most memorable moments in elementary school, he wrote, and Hensel was his most influential teacher. Even as a third-grader, Myers said, he felt the gravity of the Challenger disaster, as well as how close his favorite teacher came to being one of the individuals lost.

“By grace, Mr. Hensel’s loss (in the Teacher in Space competition) spared him to teach for many more years to come,” Myers wrote in his post. “And though I have lost touch with him the world is a better place because he lived on and continued to teach. …Here’s to you, Mr. Hensel! And here’s to all teachers who are fully committed and doing what’s best to inspire the next generation to learning. Onward and upward in joy.”

“That just grabs me,” Hensel said. “I was so touched by this.”

When Hensel reads the post aloud to friends and co-workers, after “here’s to all teachers” he always adds, “McAuliffe too.”

___

Information from: The Paducah Sun, https://www.paducahsun.com

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