CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida — Artifacts recovered from the wreckages of NASA's Challenger and Columbia space shuttles are for the first time now on public display, part of a powerful new exhibit that is intended to honor the two winged spacecraft and their fallen astronaut crews.
NASA officials joined family members of the fallen crews Saturday (June 27) to open "Forever Remembered," a new permanent exhibit installed under the retired space shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. The solemn display, developed in secret over the past several years, serves to memorialize the 14 men and women who lost their lives on Challenger's and Columbia's ill-fated missions, STS-51L in 1986 and STS-107 in 2003, respectively.
"It's now time to tell the full scope of the space shuttle's achievements," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden wrote in a message to the agency's workforce, "of the men and women who made the program great; and the sacrifices of those who lost their lives to push the boundaries of human achievement." [Photos: Personal items from NASA's fallen space shuttle astronauts]
Challenger's crew included commander Dick Scobee, pilot Mike Smith, mission specialists Ron McNair, Judy Resnik and Elison Onizuka, payload specialist Gregory Jarvis and Teacher-in-Space Christa McAuliffe.
Columbia's crew included commander Rick Husband, pilot William "Willie" McCool, mission specialists David Brown, Kalpana "KC" Chawla, Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark and Israeli payload specialist Ilan Ramon.
The gallery also serves as a shrine to the fallen orbiters, incorporating recovered debris from both — a first for any public memorial.
From Columbia, which was NASA's first space shuttle to launch in April 1981, the exhibit presents the orbiter's six forward window frames. Their thick glass panes lost when Columbia broke apart over Texas, the window frames are displayed such that they appear to be floating in the formation in which they were installed on the orbiter's flight deck.
To represent Challenger, NASA selected a large segment of the vehicle's fuselage that is immediately recognizable for the icon painted along its side.
"Forever Remembered" also features displays for each of the 14 astronauts, including portraits of the crewmembers and a selection of personal items provided by their family members. Encompassing nearly 2,000 square feet (185 square meters), the gallery holds the largest collection of personal items of both flight crews.
Challenger was lost 73 seconds into its 10th flight on Jan. 28, 1986. Cold weather had compromised an O-ring seal on one of the shuttle's two solid rocket boosters, resulting in hot gas burning through the right booster, damaging the hardware that connected it to the vehicle and causing the structural failure of the space shuttle's external fuel tank. Challenger then broke apart, succumbing to aerodynamic forces, and fell in pieces into the ocean. [Remembering Challenger: NASA's 1st Shuttle Tragedy (Photos)]
Columbia broke apart during re-entry into the atmosphere on Feb. 1, 2003. It was lost due to its left wing sustaining damage 16 days earlier during its launch. A small piece of external tank foam struck the wing's edge, leaving a hole that went undetected during the mission. On its return, hot plasma entered the wing, tearing it apart, and the resulting loss of control led to Columbia's disintegration.
Click through to collectSPACE to see more photographs and to watch family members of the fallen astronauts discuss NASA’s "Forever Remembered" exhibit.