‘Forever Remembered’ Memorial opens at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla — They were two of the most traumatic experiences of a program that lasted 30 years. The names Challenger and Columbia will forever be tied to the 14 astronauts who lost their lives on STS-51L and STS-107 – and they will also be forever memorialized by a new exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
Kept secret, even from many employees at the Visitor Complex, the “Forever Remembered” exhibit was presented to the world on the morning of Saturday, June 27, 2015. The event was opened by two officials within NASA – NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana – each of whom has deep ties to those who were lost as they, too, were shuttle astronauts. Family members of the crews were present at the small opening ceremony.
“The crews of Challenger and Columbia are forever a part of a story that is ongoing,” Bolden said. “It is the story of humankind’s evolving journey into space, the unknown, and the outer-reaches of knowledge, discovery, and possibility. It is a story of hope.”
The families of the crews of STS-51L and STS-107 collaborated with NASA to create a memorial to remember and honor the astronauts, the lost orbiters, and the importance of learning from the past. The new exhibit covers nearly 2,000 square feet, with personal items from the flight crews as well as recovered hardware from Challenger and Columbia.
“I believe that it’s important to share this story with everyone, and not just push it aside, or try to hide it,” Cabana said. “These crews and these vehicles are part of who we are as an agency and a nation. They tell the story of our never-ending quest to explore, and our undying spirit to never give up.”
The memorial project lead, NASA’s Mike Ciannilli, said that “Forever Remembered” is deliberately designed to be an emotional experience. When the project began, about four years ago, Ciannilli was a NASA Test Director and Landing Recovery Director.
“Emotion is timeless,” Ciannilli explained. “It’s important that we don’t lock this experience into a certain time, a certain place.”
The memorial has an array of items from Challenger on the left of the entrance, and Columbia on the right. The memorabilia on display was chosen to remember what each astronaut loved and achieved during their lives.
Various family photographs, cowboy boots and a Bible that belonged to Rick Husband, a small aircraft that Michael Smith had hand-carved for his wife, Michael Anderson’s vintage Star Trek lunch box, and one of Judith Resnik’s research papers are among the myriad items on display.
Some of the artifacts are owned by NASA, while others were loaned to the Visitor Complex by the astronauts’ families. The paraphernalia reminds visitors that each lost astronaut was more than a name on a mission patch; every one was a person with his or her own interests, 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 Columbia on STS-107.
“The families have been unbelievably gracious, inspiring, warm and giving,” Ciannilli said. “There were times they provided comfort to me as I worked on this, and still do.”
Beyond the personal collections, the memorial shows the shuttle hardware itself and the physical damage that they suffered. Part of the fuselage from the Challenger, with the American flag on it, stands to the left, while the Columbia’s flight deck windows are to the right.
The impact of these components is profound – affecting sensitive and more hardened visitors alike.
“When I look into those windows, I see John Young and Bob Crippen preparing to launch on the boldest test flight in history, the first flight of America’s Space Shuttle, Columbia,” Cabana said. “I see a much younger Bob Cabana launching to space on his first command, and I see Rick and Willie and the rest of the 107 crew smiling and experiencing the wonders of space on the final flight of Columbia.”
The final area of the exhibit covers what had to be done to recover from these tragedies – both emotionally and technically. This portion of the exhibit also details the efforts that were required to have the orbiters return to flight.
NASA had always taken very seriously the task of getting the shuttles to return to the sky. Investigators had spent months after each accident seeking out what had gone wrong – and how to prevent similar problems in the future. This part of the memorial includes a looping video of letters of sympathy and hope sent by children after the tragedies as well as a video that gives a glimpse into the arduous, detail-heavy investigation process.
“It’s a beautiful remembrance of all the shuttles, with the marvelous display of Atlantis. Nothing compares to it in the world,” said June Scobee Rodgers, whose husband, Dick Scobee, commanded Challenger on STS-51L. “But Challenger and Columbia are not forgotten, and they’re well represented.”
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.”
Quotes obtained from NASA article on Forever Remembered exhibit written by Anna Heiney.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.