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Reflections on Spaceflight and Memory

Posted on Thu, February 1, 2018
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For those involved or interested in human spaceflight, the last week of January is a solemn time of remembrance. Three astronaut crews perished between 1967 and 2003 in horrific accidents that could have been prevented. The Apollo 1 three-man crew died in a flash fire in their space capsule during a launch countdown test on January 27, 1967. The seven-member crew of Space Shuttle mission STS 51-L, Challenger’s last flight, died just 73 seconds into their ascent on January 28 1986. And Columbia’s last seven-member crew died on February 1, 2003, just 16 minutes from touchdown to end their 16-day STS-107 mission. Both of the shuttles disintegrated in flight. 

The Space Shuttle Columbia touches down on the runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to conclude the first orbital shuttle mission, 1981.

The Space Shuttle Columbia touches down at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to conclude the first orbital shuttle mission, 1981. Credit: NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center.  

These three tragedies are thus far the most visible and electrifying incidents in the history of U.S. spaceflight. Other astronauts and technicians have died on duty, one or two at a time, in aircraft crashes and ground support activities with less public notice. This human toll is a reminder that the hazards of spaceflight are ruthless when safety is compromised.  Remembering these losses is a hedge against complacency.

Museums preserve and display objects to preserve the memory of historic events and people who left their mark, setting a stage for visitors to experience the past. But memory is neither static nor universally shared; one’s own perspective makes a difference. The classic example of its nature is eye-witness accounts of a traffic accident. People either notice or can’t recall certain details; not everyone sees everything, so memories vary about what actually happened.

The Space Shuttle Challenger’s taking off from the lanuch pad for its first launch, 1983.

The Space Shuttle Challenger’s first launch, 1983. Credit: NASA Johnson Space Center.

How does our Museum deal with the memory of such tragedies? Widely viewed as a place to celebrate accomplishments in aviation and spaceflight, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum has also been a place where the public seeks solace when tragedy strikes. We accept the flowers and flags and notes of sorrow left here as emblems of public mourning, but we do not erect monuments to deceased astronauts or the many others who lose their lives in flight. The Museum itself is dedicated to all who explore air and space, those who survive and those who do not.

Apollo 1 Crew

Apollo 1 Crew - Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Edward H. White II and Roger B. Chaffee, January 27, 1967.

Yet when we started planning our Moving Beyond Earth exhibition about the era of the Space Shuttle and International Space Station, we knew that we must address the memory of the Challenger and Columbia tragedies. Our decision was to treat them in displays that are almost mirror images, with a brief narrative of the event—its causes and consequences—and a selection of personal artifacts. The two exhibit cases feature memorial plaques, gifts from NASA to honor the crewmembers, and several more personal objects. The displays are subtle and respectful, not sensational. The Apollo 1 crew is currently remembered within the context of the Space Race narrative in Space Hall. Our intent is a dignified, factual acknowledgment of what happened, without editorializing, because we realize that no single memory takes precedence over others. We hope that visitors who discover these displays reflect on the reality of loss in the high-risk venture of spaceflight.

A display case in the Moving Beyond Earth exhibition, commemorating the Challenger launch tragedy.

A display case in the Moving Beyond Earth exhibition, commemorating the Challenger launch tragedy. Credit: National Air and Space Museum.

A display case in the Moving Beyond Earth exhibition, commemorating the Columbia return tragedy.

A display case in the Moving Beyond Earth exhibition, commemorating the Columbia return tragedy. Credit: National Air and Space Museum.

It has now been 15 years since Columbia, 32 since Challenger, and 51 since Apollo 1. For many of us, those events are seared in memory. For those who did not bear witness at the time, a number of authors have recorded the events in riveting narratives, tinted by their own perspectives and memories. Some are journalistic accounts written in the immediate aftermath; others are analyses that took years to complete; and yet others are by participants who were actively involved in the events leading up to the accidents or the subsequent investigations. In much greater detail than our exhibits, these accounts bring awful moments, days, weeks, and months back to mind so we do not forget the events or the spacefarers who linger in memory.