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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Revering the Relics of Disaster

The Columbia crash investigation is closing, so what will happen to all the debris? The form that memorials take tells us a lot about ourselves.

August 25, 2003|Usha Lee McFarling | Times Staff Writer

About 84,000 traumatized pieces -- twisted aluminum, charred ceramic tile and shreds of tire rubber -- lie on a massive grid of yellow tape in a hangar at Kennedy Space Center.

For seven months, an army of workers has delicately assembled the shards into the ghostly outline of what once was the shuttle Columbia -- key clues in determining why the orbiter plunged out of the blue Texas sky in February.

With investigators preparing to issue their final report on the cause of the accident Tuesday, the scattered debris is now making a sad transition from evidence into relic and reservoir of history, memory and pain.

One question looms: What to do with it all?

Such answers came more easily after the Challenger explosion in 1986. The 20 tons of debris recovered from the Atlantic Ocean -- about half of the shuttle and most of the crew cabin -- were bagged, cataloged and entombed in two abandoned Minuteman silos at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station near the ill-fated Challenger's launch pad.

It was an ignominious burial: The 90-foot-deep silos had held discarded control room consoles and several feet of stagnant water before they were cleared. When they were uncapped, the stench overpowered workers and rats scurried out. Less than a year after the accident, the last vestiges of the shuttle were lifted skyward by crane, dropped into the silos and sealed under 10,000-pound concrete caps.

Columbia will be different.

"One thing we're not going to do, which was done with the Challenger, is lock it up and bury it and pretend that it didn't happen," vowed NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe.

NASA officials have decided to provide some pieces to scientists and engineers for research. They are also cautiously broaching the idea of putting the shattered remnants of Columbia on display as an official memorial.

The Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., has asked to display parts of the ruined shuttle, including the leading edge of the left wing where the fatal breach is thought to have occurred. A number of cities across the nation have also approached the agency, asking for smaller pieces to create their own tributes. NASA has declined to identify the cities involved.

Like the mangled steel I-beams of the World Trade Center and chunks of granite from the Oklahoma City bombing that have been become part of memorials around the country, parts of the shuttle are now in demand.

"Living people don't want to let go. We don't want to forget, so we create shrines -- whatever form they take," said Anneli Rufus, the author of "Magnificent Corpses," a book about medieval religious relics.

After the American Civil War, it took decades before some small towns were able to pay for and mount tributes to dead soldiers. Today, it seems memorials need to go up before the next news cycle eclipses them or people's short attention spans move on to something else. While there has always been calamity, the modern world seems incessantly awash in tragedy -- from a bombing or the death of a princess half a world away to the murder of a child in the next county.

"It sounds harsh, but there's a feeling we have to capitalize on the moment before we forget," said Gary M. Laderman, a professor of religion at Emory University and author of "Rest In Peace," a history of funeral rituals in the 20th century.

Immediately after Columbia fell, fields of flowers and handwritten notes appeared at the entrance gates of the Kennedy and Johnson space centers. Cyber-memorials of all types sprung up on the Web, letting anyone with an Internet connection glimpse the private lives of a group relatively unknown before their deaths. Mission specialist Kalpana Chawla loved the band Deep Purple. Pilot William C. McCool backpacked through the parks of the American West every chance he got. Payload commander Michael P. Anderson drove a classic Porsche.

In a matter of weeks, small tributes began to sprout up around the country. A Cub Scout troop in Indiana planted a perennial garden around their elementary school to honor the astronauts; the city of Lancaster changed the name of Avenue M to "Columbia Way." Seven asteroids were named after the dead astronauts, and a 13,980-foot high peak in Colorado now goes by the name "Columbia Point."

But there is a desire for more -- a piece of the fallen shuttle.

"Somehow you connect more through material than through memories," said Edward T. Linenthal, a professor of religion at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh and the author of "Unfinished Bombing," a book about the Oklahoma City National Memorial Archive. The shuttle crash "is a national story, a public death, so the stuff becomes part of the pantheon of national relics."

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