“Beautiful, powerful, poignant – and painful”

I was 5 years old when the Space Shuttle Challenger (STS-51L) exploded on the 28th January 1986, one minute and 13 seconds in its flight. To this day I can clearly remember my parents gasping in unison, seeing my Mum crying and my Dad slowly shaking his head in disbelief, and the seemingly unending silence that followed. We watched what we now know was Challenger’s shuttle cockpit continuing to sail upward for another three miles before its momentum gave out, and it plunged 12 miles to the ocean, tumbling into the Atlantic with the crew, in all likelihood, conscious for the full two and a half minutes until it hit the water resulting in the deaths of seven astronauts: Commander Francis Scobee, Pilot Michael J. Smith, Mission Specialists Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka and Ronald McNair, and Payload Specialists Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire schoolteacher.

Seventeen years later on the 16th of January 2003, I was 22 years old and at University when NASA’s flagship orbiter the Space Shuttle Columbia (STS-107) thundered into orbit on a 16-day science mission. On board were Commander Rick Husband, Pilot Willie McCool, Payload Commander Michael Anderson, Mission Specialists Kalpana Chawla, David Brown and Laurel Clark, and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut. On the 1st of February 2003, the orbiter was incinerated in the skies above Texas and Louisiana as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere 16-minutes before it was due to land at John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Seven more lives were lost. Making the tragedy even worse, two pilots aboard a search helicopter were killed in a crash while looking for debris.

NASA recovered the pieces of the Space Shuttle Challenger and kept them in storage for years; buried within the silo of Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 31 , but sometime in early 2015, unannounced, quietly and respectively, NASA opened the silo and removed several pieces of Challenger’s debris to be placed on permanent display at the John F. Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Kept secret, even from the majority of employees at the Visitor Complex, the “Forever Remembered” exhibit was opened on the morning of Saturday, 27th of June 2015 virtually without fanfare, and no tape cutting ceremony with oversized scissors. NASA had unveiled a new memorial honoring the two, seven-astronaut crews of the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia. Now on permanent public display within the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibition center, visitors are welcomed into a gallery that includes personal items from each of the 14 astronauts lost in the disasters as well as debris from both shuttles.

According to NASA public affairs specialist Michael Curie, in the days leading up to the exhibit opening, the family members of those who had died on the missions came to the John F. Kennedy Space Center for a private viewing. It was only when presented with the finished exhibit that the relatives said that the memorial brought them a sense of peace, as well as “hope that people will learn from the tragedies.

Michael Curie recalls that in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster, one of the most memorable photographs shot during the recovery and subsequent shuttle burial process was of the left panel of Challenger’s fuselage hanging from a crane, which was emblazoned with the American flag, albeit severely burned and damaged.

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image credit: NASA

He goes on to say that when Kennedy Space Center director and former astronaut Bob Cabana (STS-88, STS-65, STS-53, STS-41) began to develop the design concept of this memorial, he and others on his team felt that the torn, flag-covered panel was especially important to show to the public. With regards to the Space Shuttle Columbia, the team felt that the cockpit windows were the most fitting.

It was four years ago (at the time of writing), during the last NASA space shuttle missions of Endeavour (STS-134) and Atlantis (STS-135), that Cabana realized he wanted to create a public exhibition honoring the lost crews. But in the end, the decision to do so remained entirely up to the families.

Cabana went to NASA administrator and fellow former astronaut Charles Bolden (STS-61-C, STS-60, STS-45, STS-31), Curie says, and together they both reached out to the astronauts’ relatives. The pair agreed that they would not move forward with the idea unless the families of ALL 14 fallen crew members wanted them to:

“The exhibit could not have happened without their cooperation. Each of the families helped to contribute to the exhibit and all of the families were in agreement that this should be done at this time.” Visiting the memorial together also “brought the families very much together,” Curie says.

There is already an astronaut memorial at Kennedy Space Center, known as the ‘Mirror Memorial’; a large area of polished black granite, that is divided into 90 smaller panels where the names of the 24 astronauts who have died are scattered over the mirror. The names of astronauts who died in the same incident are grouped on the same panel, or pairs of adjacent panels. The names are cut completely through the surface, exposing a translucent backing, and filled with translucent acrylic, which is then backlit with a combination of reflected sunlight (when available) and floodlights, causing the names to glow, and appear to float in a reflection of the sky. The new memorial is confined solely to the Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia disasters and takes a much more personalized approach, and highlights each of the astronauts as individuals.

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image credit: Seth Buckley

Back in 1994, 18 years before Bob Cabana had come up with the memorial, he flew on Columbia himself on STS-65, and when looking at the cockpit windows now on display, he choked back the tears while speaking to CBS.

“They’re the windows to the soul of Columbia,” he said. “And when I look at that, I see [astronauts] John Young and Bob Crippen on the first flight of Columbia. I see a young Bob Cabana on his first command. And I see Rick and Willie and the whole 107 crew, with smiles on their faces, enjoying that space flight.”

“The crews were part of our family,” Cabana says, “and the vehicles, they’re part of our family, too.”

Now, through this memorial, Curie says, those who died “will actively be engaged in teaching future engineers and managers how important it is to consider every last detail before approving the launch of humans into space.”

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image credit: Ken Kremer

The memorial features a central hallway, and it is silent, no ambient music can be heard, nor can you hear the voices of visitors outside. On both walls are displays honoring each crew member individually, that include personal items provided by their families. Challenger on the left of the entrance, and Columbia on the right. The artifacts on display was chosen to remember what each astronaut loved and achieved during their lives. Items include Husband’s cowboy boots, a small aircraft Smith hand-carved for his wife, and a research paper co-authored by Judy Resnik, displayed alongside sheet music for violin and piano. There is a Cub Scout shirt once worn by Anderson, Scobee’s slide rule-like navigation tool and a leather flight helmet, Onizuka’s personal Buddhist prayer beads, a biking trophy won by Jarvis and a charred page from Ramon’s flight notebook, recovered after the accident.

A minority of the artifacts are owned by NASA, where the others were loaned to the John F.Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex by the astronauts’ families. It becomes heart-stirringly apparent that each lost astronaut was more than a name on a mission patch; every one was a person with his or her own interests, family and friends, loved ones, and life.“I knew it would be very emotional to see, but honestly, I didn’t expect to be so impacted by it. I just can’t stop thinking about it. As you walk in, you know you’re in a special place,” Evelyn Husband Thompson said of the memorial. Her husband, Rick, commanded the Space Shuttle Columbia on STS-107.

At the end of the hall that houses the personal collections, you turn to the right and are met by the Shuttle hardware itself, and the catastrophic physical damage that they suffered. Part of the fuselage from the Space Shuttle Challenger has one of its eighteen vents and outlets that lined the fuselage skin of the Shuttle along its sides (these vent ports allowed the unpressurized areas to depressurize during ascent and repressurize during descent and landing.) The pressurization port that remains permanently open, stuck from the explosion, that has the American flag on it, stands to the left, while the Space Shuttle Columbia’s scorched and blackened cockpit window casing, that barely survived the 1,650 °C (3,000 °F) temperatures that are felt during re-entry, is to the right.

The impact of these artifacts is hugely profound.

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image credit: BRPH

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image credit: BRPH

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image credit: BRPH

Beautiful, powerful, poignant – and painful. The exhibit elicits an array of emotions, as Bolden himself has noted.

“The artifacts here on display are not easy to look at. Many of them are on display for the very first time” Bolden said. “It is our hope that by making them available for the public to view, we will help remind the world, that every launch, every discovery, every measure of progress, is possible only because of the sacrifice of those we have lost.”

The Memorial closes with a video wall documenting the recovery of the two Shuttles from three different perspectives. One of the videos focuses on the emotional responses, and features letters that children sent to NASA in the wake of the accidents; the second video highlights the debris collection and investigation; and the third is about how the agency returned the shuttle to flight.

So, stand up, travel to Florida and visit this Memorial. Time’s arrow points only one way, and reliving catastrophes doesn’t change their outcome. This memorial doesn’t attempt to do so. Instead, the Forever Remembered memorial succeeds in its aim to remember those who have lost their lives in humankind’s quest to unchain themselves from the bonds of Earth and touch the faces of the moon, planets, and stars. And yet it is a heart-wrenchingly painful reminder that space exploration is difficult, and dangerous.

“If we die, we want people to accept it. We’re in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program..,” said astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom, who later died in the Apollo 1 launchpad fire.

“…The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.”

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