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Twenty-five years ago Friday, the space shuttle Challenger took off from Cape Canaveral at 11:39 a.m., exploding just 73 seconds later as a horrified nation watched.

Even as the shuttle program itself fades to memory, the tiny Dr. Ronald McNair Park in Crown Heights still honors the legacy of its namesake, the only African-American onboard.

But as the neighborhood around it changes, some worry whether the park’s meaning is fading, too.

Chris Saltpaw, 39, of Prospect Heights, watched the explosion on television and recalled what McNair’s presence on the crew of seven meant to him.

“Being a little black kid growing up, it meant everything to me and that generation to have an African-American go up in a shuttle.

“But now, I feel like a lot of that memory is being lost, and a new generation of African-American children don’t even know what it means. And that’s a tragedy.”

The park was dedicated in 1986, and has a bust of McNair, who died at 36, along with art pieces and memorials to the other astronauts.

McNair was just the second African-American in space, but the heartbreaking end to NASA’s 25th shuttle launch gives his memory a special significance that could be endangered.

“McNair’s is such a tragic memory to lose,” said Santmukh Khalsa, 30, of Crown Heights. “Any group of people needs someone to look up to within a cultural or ethnic group as something to aspire to. And that’s being lost.”

Freddie Maloney, 42, of Crown Heights, said he worries about McNair's legacy.

“Here was a black man who was part of NASA, doing something really big, and it’s a crying shame that so many people today have forgotten what he did and died for.

“Before that, we kids growing up never even thought about doing something like that,” Maloney said.

“He changed that.”

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