The dates marked Jan. 27, 28, and Feb. 1 are downcast days in U.S. spaceflight history (and U.S. history, period), but they’re even more significant for the people in and around Kennedy Space Center (KSC). Many space center families, current and past workers, and local residents remember the tremendous personal losses that occurred on these dates all too clearly, despite the passing of the years. On the morning of Saturday, Jan. 30, the City of Titusville—just miles from KSC and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS)—held a memorial ceremony at Sand Point Park honoring the lives of the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger (STS-51L), and Columbia (STS-107), wrapping up a week of ceremonies held to honor the late astronauts. This week’s memorials were particularly bittersweet, as NASA marked the 30th anniversary of the Challenger disaster.
The annual event was held by the City of Titusville Flag & Memorial Committee and the U.S. Space Walk of Fame, and was well-attended. The Flag & Memorial Committee’s Chairwoman, Barbara McGillicuddy, discussed in her opening remarks how the passing of time does not diminish the memory of the tragedies.
“I was thinking about how we do this every year, and how we highlight the people involved. It dawned on me that people like me, who were in their early twenties when we lost the space shuttle Challenger … it’s like the dates are etched into your mind, kind of like November 22nd, 1963, and September 11, 2001. There was also Apollo 1 – January 27th, 1967 – followed by Challenger, then followed by Columbia on February 1st, 2003. Where were you? Does that cement a particular place in your mind?” she related. Indeed, one of the audience members who was asked where he was on the day Challenger broke up across the cold Florida skies in 1986, just 73 seconds into its mission, was on a KSC contingency team assigned to spring into action in case anything went wrong—and unfortunately that day, things went wrong.
McGillicuddy added: “I think that it’s marvelous that you all come together every year to support and remember America’s heroes, as we move forward with the curiosity of the human condition. Other astronauts who have been with us in the past, such as Jon McBride, would do it all over again. I want you to see today as more than a memorial, but [also as] a celebration of the human condition and the human spirit.”
Following an opening prayer by Rev. Jerry Hanson, Titusville Mayor James H. Tulley, Jr. added his remarks prior to welcoming mayors from surrounding Brevard County cities: “I think the reason why we draw a pretty good crowd for this every year is because of Titusville’s proximity to the space center. You can look right across the water. … In fact, you can walk right up to our bridge there, and get spectacular views of the space center and launch pads where the shuttles took off on those awful days. Because of that proximity, I would expect that many or most of the people in the crowd either worked out there, is related to someone who worked out there, or has a good friend who worked out there.
“So for us, this is not just a memorial for those crews. It’s very personal for us. Many of us in the crowd knew some of those folks who died on those missions. It’s fitting and proper that we do this [event] in Titusville,” he emphasized. The U.S. Space Walk of Fame’s director, Tara Dixon Engle, underscored McGillicuddy’s and Mayor Tulley’s sentiments: “This type of event has a lot of meaning for me. A few years ago I visited Launch Complex 34 [located at CCAFS], where Apollo 1 happened – it was ‘abandoned in place.’ It was one of those cloudy, windswept days, and at first I found it desolate and very sad. But then I found a tiny placard on the hulking concrete platform that said, ‘Ad astra per aspera,’ which is simply Latin for ‘To the stars, with hardship.’ Those four little words gave me tremendous hope and pride. Nothing worthwhile is achieved without sacrifice. … Our conquest of space has impacted every facet of our daily lives.”
Perhaps the most emotional words of the day came from the event’s keynote speaker, retired astronaut Greg “Box” Johnson, a veteran of two space shuttle missions (STS-123 and STS-134). During his career, he was personal friends with the STS-107 astronauts, who perished upon reentry during the morning hours of Feb. 1, 2003. “As I was preparing this speech, I actually broke down. … Bear with me. The sacrifice and hope we have in our nation’s space program affects all of us deeply in our hearts. … Today we are gathered to remember the contributions and sacrifices of people, astronauts who have given their lives in service for their countries, for the betterment of all mankind.”
Following Johnson’s speech, he and Mayor Tulley laid a wreath at the astronaut memorial circle at the park in tribute; this was followed by community representatives laying flowers upon the fallen astronauts’ plaques. Christa McAuliffe, the nation’s first Teacher in Space who perished aboard Challenger, received dozens of notes from local schoolchildren, and most touchingly, an apple on her plaque.
Saturday’s memorial wrapped up a solemn week of remembrances on the darkest week of the year for U.S. spaceflight. On Thursday, Jan. 28, the 30th anniversary of Challenger, NASA held its annual Day of Remembrance, paying tribute at several centers across the nation. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Deputy Administrator Dava Newman, and other agency officials participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at Washington, D.C.’s Arlington National Cemetery that morning. Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex held its annual remembrance ceremony at the Space Mirror Memorial, while other memorial events were also held at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.