Last updated: 10:41 PM ET, Sun August 02 2015

Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia Wreckage On Display for the First Time

Destination & Tourism | Michael Isenbek | August 02, 2015

Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia Wreckage On Display for the First Time

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

NASA has just opened an exhibit at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida paying tribute to astronauts lost in flight featuring remnants of two destroyed space shuttles kept from the public eye for years, the Associated Press reported.

The "Forever Remembered" exhibit at the KSC visitor complex integrates a piece of each shuttle plus the unique personal effects of astronauts who were lost. NASA said, via the AP, that the intention is to show how the astronauts lived, not how they met their untimely end, so there are no pictures of Challenger breaking apart soon after launch in January 1986, or of Columbia fragmenting over Texas during re-entry in February 2003.

A permanent exhibit, “Forever Remembered” is part of a display centered on retired space shuttle Atlantis, which is suspended from the ceiling.

After being collected and placed at the center of each investigation, the two sets of shattered shuttle remains took different paths.

The AP said Columbia’s debris, all 42 tons of it, was carefully stored at KSC’s hulking Vehicle Assembly Building and used for research. Later, some of the pieces were used as workplace safety reminders while the other space shuttles — Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour — were still flying.

But with Challenger’s wreckage, the AP stated, “NASA wanted it out of sight and out of mind.” Besides the loss of the astronauts, the additional tragedy was the demise of America’s first astronaut schoolteacher, as students across the country watched the launch on live TV. So Challenger’s 118 tons of remains were tucked away in a pair of abandoned missile silos near KSC.

In the creation of this exhibit, NASA seemed steadfast in maintaining a sense of dignity. And even though an outside company runs the KSC visitor complex, NASA itself took the reins for this one. The AP said every aspect of the exhibit’s creation over a span of four years was done in secrecy — out of respect for the families of the fallen astronauts.

Michael Ciannilli, shuttle engineer and test director, was tapped to arrange “Forever Remembered” and select representative pieces from each shuttle. He told the AP, "Our biggest concern the whole time was doing the right thing.”

Planning culminated in Ciannilli visiting the missile silo to select a piece of Challenger. "I was hoping to find something that would show the beauty of Challenger, the dignity of Challenger, the strength of Challenger, and these are words I don't use lightly," Ciannilli said to the AP.

He picked a 12-foot section from the left side of the orbiter’s body bearing a U.S. flag, described by the AP as “gouged and scraped but still brilliantly colorful.”

Columbia’s piece is the charred front window frames. He conveyed to the AP that looking at the frames is like gazing into Columbia’s eyes, and therefore, its soul.

June Scobee Rodgers, widow of Challenger’s commander, told the AP she hadn’t seen a piece of the destroyed shuttle in person until previewing “Forever Remembered” just before the opening at the end of June. "Sad, yes," to see the wreckage but it is "a wonderful memorial" to the shuttles, Scobee Rodgers said. She found the astronauts’ personal items a "truly fitting" reminder of who they were as individuals.

"I can't stop thinking about (the exhibit)," Evelyn Husband-Thompson, the widow of Columbia's commander, said in a NASA interview, via the AP. "As you walk in, you know that you're in a special place."

Visiting the exhibit in July along with her husband and two kids, Apopka, Florida resident Amber DiSalvatore was moved to tears.

The astronauts sacrificed their lives for exploration, DiSalvatore said to the AP. "So it's something that everybody — every human being — should know."

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