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Space museum turns to tragedy

The Smithsonian center has been popular for its tales of triumph, but now it is debating how to tell the story of the fatal shuttle accidents.

August 20, 2003|Jacqueline Trescott | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Curators at the National Air and Space Museum are wrestling with the delicate question of how to present the Challenger and Columbia tragedies.

Specifically, should an exhibition on the space shuttle include pieces of wreckage?

Doing so would be a departure for the museum. Until now the tragedies of airplane and space travel have been dealt with briefly -- as concise mentions in explanatory panels or the display of simple artifacts, such as a crew patch.

"Triumph and tragedy have been there for years," said Valerie Neal, the museum's curator of space history. "But the primary story of the space race has been one of triumph, and there is an occasional and rare subtext of tragedy. When it happens, it is shocking and cataclysmic to the families and the public."

Yet, tragedy "is a new topic for us," Neal conceded.

The discussions taking place now at the museum are the first steps in developing an exhibit. The show -- about the 22 years of space shuttle flights -- is still three or four years away. But curators are deciding now whether to collect and show wreckage from the space shuttle Columbia, which exploded on reentry into the Earth's atmosphere in February.

Roger Launius, chairman of the space history department at the museum, said the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) controls remnants of the Columbia accident, as well as wreckage from the Challenger flight, which exploded shortly after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986. The agency also has all the artifacts from the Apollo 1 accident, in which three astronauts were killed by a fire on the launch pad in 1967.

Launius, who worked for NASA as a historian, says something more than a brief acknowledgment of misfortune has to be done by the museum.

"I think so. Yet I go back and forth. I have a real sensitivity to the family members and the folks at NASA. I don't want to do something that is ghoulish. I think it is appropriate that we could have some definable piece from Challenger and Columbia, maybe the hatch," said Launius.

Jim Hull, an exhibit and artifacts manager at NASA, said the space agency and the museum have always been partners in selecting artifacts. That would continue in developing materials for an exhibition on the shuttle, but there are unusual hurdles. A lot of the materials are recycled from shuttle to shuttle and are still in use. The number of iconic relics, such as space capsules, are dwindling. The disposition of objects from the Columbia flight is open-ended. The wreckage is now in a hangar at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"There is a debate on how to treat this. The families and the agency are responsible," Hull said. When a decision is made about what, if anything, could be displayed, he said, "the Smithsonian has the first right of refusal." The wreckage of the Challenger was buried in an underground silo at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

When the Challenger exploded, the world was shocked. Seven astronauts lost their lives. On Feb. 1 the Columbia exploded, killing its seven-member crew. More than 70,000 items from the shuttle were recovered over a swath of Texas and are held by NASA as the investigation continues.

But people expect the museum to take an active part in remembering, as well as educating. When an accident occurs, people flock to the Air and Space Museum and the staff assembles a simple memorial to allow them to express their feelings. After the Columbia accident, 2,000 people from 55 countries signed the condolence book in six languages.

When retired astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American to travel in space, died in 1998, his capsule was retrieved from the storage facility and brought to the museum. It was displayed with his portrait.

Throughout its 27-year history the museum has emphasized the celebratory -- the accomplishment of flight, the missions into space and the achievements of the men and women who made the advances possible. Telling those stories and displaying famous aircraft have made Air and Space the most popular museum in the world.

At the same time, the museum has mostly left accounts of events that horrify and fascinate the public to the media and eventually the historians. There are exceptions. For years there was an exhibit on the Hindenburg, the famous airship that was destroyed by fire in the air over Lakehurst, N.J., in 1937, that included film of the explosion.

In 1994 the museum attempted to display part of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1946. A preliminary script that emphasized the consequences of dropping the bomb set off a firestorm of criticism from veterans groups and politicians. The show was revamped with a straightforward script centering on the plane and crew.

The current discussions are centering on how to realistically present the history of the shuttle and the space station, with or without any major artifacts.

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