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NASA Exhibit: Challenger, Columbia Wreckage on Public Display for 1st Time

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA is offering up wreckage from the Challenger and Columbia for public view after hiding it from the world for decades.

A new exhibit at Kennedy Space Center features two pieces of debris, one from each lost shuttle, as well as poignant, personal reminders of the 14 astronauts killed in flight.

It is an unprecedented collection of artifacts — the first time, in fact, that any Challenger or Columbia remains have been openly displayed.

NASA's intent is to show how the astronauts lived, rather than how they died. As such, there are no pictures in the "Forever Remembered" exhibit of Challenger breaking apart in the Florida sky nearly 30 years ago or Columbia debris raining down on Texas 12 years ago.

Since the tragic re-entry, Columbia's scorched remains have been stashed in off-limits offices at the space center. But NASA had to pry open the underground tomb housing Challenger's pieces — a pair of abandoned missile silos at neighboring Cape Canaveral Air Force Station — to retrieve the section of fuselage now on display.

The exhumation was conducted in secrecy. Everything about the exhibit, in fact, was kept hush-hush during the four years it took to complete the project, out of respect to the dead astronauts' families.

June Scobee Rodgers had never seen an actual remnant of her husband's destroyed shuttle, Challenger, until previewing the exhibit just before its low-key opening at the end of June.

A permanent memorial, "Forever Remembered," is unveiled June 27 in the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Kim Shiflett / NASA

Displayed in a dimly lit room: a 12-foot section of the left side body panel of Challenger, standing vertically and bearing the gouged and scraped but still brilliantly colorful U.S. flag, and the charred frames for Columbia's cockpit windows, seemingly floating at eye level.

"Sad, yes," to see the wreckage but it is "a wonderful memorial" to the shuttles, Scobee Rodgers said. The items representing the astronauts, on the other hand, are a "truly fitting" reminder of who they were as individuals.

Challenger commander Francis "Dick" Scobee's display case, on the left side of the exhibit's main corridor, contains the leather helmet from the Starduster biplane he and June used to fly, and his blue "TFNG" T-shirt from the Astronaut Class of 1978, nicknamed the Thirty-Five New Guys.

Across the hall on the right are Columbia commander Rick Husband's scuffed cowboy boots and well-worn Bible opened to Proverbs. There's a display case for each astronaut, filled with personal items, although not all families contributed, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe's.

NASA and astronaut families collaborated on the memorial designed to honor the crews lost on missions STS-51L and STS-107, pay tribute to shuttle vehicles Challenger and Columbia, and emphasize the importance of learning from the past. Kim Shiflett / NASA

"Forever Remembered" is a permanent exhibit, part of a larger display centered on the retired space shuttle Atlantis. NASA opted to keep Atlantis at Kennedy, the shuttle launch site, after Atlantis closed the program with the final mission in 2011.

The entrance to the new exhibit is directly beneath the nose of Atlantis, which is suspended with its payload bay doors wide open as though perpetually orbiting Earth.