COCOA BEACH, Florida (CNN) -- They met as part of a NASA program to recognize their under-appreciated profession. They bonded in grief when Christa McAuliffe, the first Teacher in Space, perished with six colleagues in the Challenger explosion in 1986. This week, they are together again.
The patch is worn by the finalists of the Teacher in Space program.
More than half of the 119 state finalists in the Teacher in Space program are gathering this week to watch the launch of Barbara Morgan, McAuliffe's backup, as she blasts off on the shuttle Endeavour.
Gail Klink, an English and Spanish teacher, was one of two finalists from Ohio who has traveled to Florida for this reunion.
"When Christa's shuttle exploded my heart was ripped out and scattered across the heavens. I'm looking to put it back together again. We've been hanging in here for over two decades and we're all back together again saying, this is our day. This is our flight," she said. Watch Morgan's long journey to space »
For many of the teachers, their selection was a life- changing experience. While many stayed in the classroom, others have worked in the aerospace industry, created space camps and established schools with a focus on science and technology.
For Klink, the experience led to a career change that maintained a focus on education.
"People started to ask me to speak about the experience, then they started to ask me to speak to teachers, and I started for going more than just the space program, but a motivational talk. I started talking about 'launching your life.' For the last 22 years, I have been a professional speaker. I stayed in the classroom for a few years then I did aerospace education for my district for three years and then I left, thinking I could just knock the walls down of the classroom and reach a much bigger audience," said Klink. Learn about Endeavour's mission »
Dozens of the teachers gathered in the oppressive Florida heat for a barbecue on Monday night. While their physical reunions are rare, many of the teachers have remained close over the past two decades.
"It's like you have people who are as close or closer than brothers and sisters," said Freda Deskin, who represented Oklahoma.
Whether a professional challenge, or a death in the family, she said these colleagues have been there to guide each other through the experience.
"It's a very comforting feeling. And it gives you the energy to keep going," said Deskin, who has established both an aerospace camp and a charter school for science and technology since her NASA experience.
There was an additional sense of loss after the Challenger accident for Art Kimura, a Teacher in Space representative from Hawaii.
"Because we had Hawaii's own Ellison Onizuka [mission specialist] onboard Challenger, and we had a teacher we were close to [Christa McAuliffe], it did change my career path. Our state decided to fund a program in aerospace education, and I was privileged to participate in it for nine years," said Kimura.
Judith Garcia of Virginia was one of the 10 finalists in the program and did additional physical and psychological training with McAuliffe and Morgan. She remembers one very somber talk from Richard Scobee, commander of the doomed Challenger mission.
"All of us realized very clearly that spaceflight was a risky business. Dick Scobee made that very clear. When he met with us he said, if you don't understand that the shuttle is an experimental vehicle and that space flight is very risky, you don't belong here. And if you don't have a healthy respect and a healthy fear for what this is all about you don't belong here. We knew what it was all about," said Garcia.
While there were some science teachers among the 10 finalists, many other types of instructors were represented. In some of their informal talks, the top 10 tried to figure out a common thread in their selection.
Kathleen Beres of Maryland thought it had something to do with wanting to rock the boat at times.
"It seemed like every one of the 10 of us was seen as kind of a renegade, or kind of 'pushed the envelope' at our schools. None of us were the pet of our department chairperson. None of us were pet of the principal. So I think what our schools perceived was that we were all kind of pushing the envelope. We all believe the universe is our classroom," said Beres.
It has been a long wait but worth it, said Myra Halpin, one of two teachers selected from South Carolina.
"It's friends who share an incredible experience. It's been so bonding and that bonding has lasted for 22 years, because there's so much energy, so many common experiences," she said. E-mail to a friend
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