NASA Exhibits Space Shuttles Challenger, Columbia Debris for First Time

Space Shuttle Challenger Wreckage on Display
A section of space shuttle Challenger's fuselage and the window frames from space shuttle Columbia are part of a new memorial, titled "Forever Remembered," at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. (Image credit: Z. Pearlman)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida — Artifacts recovered from the wreckages of NASA's Challenger and Columbia space shuttles are for the first time now on public display, part of a powerful new exhibit that is intended to honor the two winged spacecraft and their fallen astronaut crews.

NASA officials joined family members of the fallen crews Saturday (June 27) to open "Forever Remembered," a new permanent exhibit installed under the retired space shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. The solemn display, developed in secret over the past several years, serves to memorialize the 14 men and women who lost their lives on Challenger's and Columbia's ill-fated missions, STS-51L in 1986 and STS-107 in 2003, respectively.

"It's now time to tell the full scope of the space shuttle's achievements," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden wrote in a message to the agency's workforce, "of the men and women who made the program great; and the sacrifices of those who lost their lives to push the boundaries of human achievement." [Photos: Personal items from NASA's fallen space shuttle astronauts]

Fallen astronauts’ artifacts line the walls of "Forever Remembered" in the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. (Image credit: Z. Pearlman)

Challenger's crew included commander Dick Scobee, pilot Mike Smith, mission specialists Ron McNair, Judy Resnik and Elison Onizuka, payload specialist Gregory Jarvis and Teacher-in-Space Christa McAuliffe.

Columbia's crew included commander Rick Husband, pilot William "Willie" McCool, mission specialists David Brown, Kalpana "KC" Chawla, Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark and Israeli payload specialist Ilan Ramon.

The gallery also serves as a shrine to the fallen orbiters, incorporating recovered debris from both — a first for any public memorial.

From Columbia, which was NASA's first space shuttle to launch in April 1981, the exhibit presents the orbiter's six forward window frames. Their thick glass panes lost when Columbia broke apart over Texas, the window frames are displayed such that they appear to be floating in the formation in which they were installed on the orbiter's flight deck.

"It is said the eyes are the windows to our souls, and I believe that is true for the windows of Columbia also," said Bob Cabana, Kennedy Space Center director and a former shuttle astronaut. "When I look into those windows, I see John Young and Bob Crippen preparing to launch on the boldest test flight in history."

"I see a much younger Bob Cabana launching to space on his first command," Cabana said, referencing his STS-65 mission in 1994, "and I see Rick and Willy, and the rest of the 107 crew smiling and experiencing the wonders of space." [Photos: The Columbia Space Shuttle Tragedy]

To represent Challenger, NASA selected a large segment of the vehicle's fuselage that is immediately recognizable for the icon painted along its side.

"Looking at the side wall of Challenger, I see the American flag and think of all that [it] accomplished," Cabana noted. "I see the smiles on the faces of the final crew waving as they were leaving crew quarters for the Astrovan and the trip out to the [launch] pad, and I see our will to persevere in the face of adversity and come back even stronger."

"Forever Remembered" also features displays for each of the 14 astronauts, including portraits of the crewmembers and a selection of personal items provided by their family members. Encompassing nearly 2,000 square feet (185 square meters), the gallery holds the largest collection of personal items of both flight crews.

Items include Husband's cowboy boots and bible; a small aircraft Smith hand-carved for his wife; Anderson's vintage "Star Trek" lunch box and a research paper Resnik wrote, displayed alongside her sheet music for violin and piano. There are flight jackets, family photographs and numerous other artifacts offering insight into the people behind the names on the mission patches. Many items were loaned by the families; others belong to NASA.

"This exhibition has the full participation of the astronauts' families," stated Bolden. "It shares with everyone some of the most poignant and difficult artifacts of our history. But ultimately, it is a story of hope, because these astronauts were dreaming of the future."

Challenger was lost 73 seconds into its 10th flight on Jan. 28, 1986. Cold weather had compromised an O-ring seal on one of the shuttle's two solid rocket boosters, resulting in hot gas burning through the right booster, damaging the hardware that connected it to the vehicle and causing the structural failure of the space shuttle's external fuel tank. Challenger then broke apart, succumbing to aerodynamic forces, and fell in pieces into the ocean. [Remembering Challenger: NASA's 1st Shuttle Tragedy (Photos)]

Columbia broke apart during re-entry into the atmosphere on Feb. 1, 2003. It was lost due to its left wing sustaining damage 16 days earlier during its launch. A small piece of external tank foam struck the wing's edge, leaving a hole that went undetected during the mission. On its return, hot plasma entered the wing, tearing it apart, and the resulting loss of control led to Columbia's disintegration.

Debris recovery efforts followed both tragedies in order to obtain the evidence needed to learn what had claimed the vehicles and their crew.

About 120 tons of Challenger wreckage were raised off the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. The retrieval accounted for 30 percent of Challenger's total structure, including about 75 percent of its crew cabin and surrounding fuselage.

After the investigation into its loss concluded, 102 crates containing Challenger's remnants were put into two retired Minuteman missile silos, Complex 31 and 32 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The subterranean silos were not intended as a burial or memorial for Challenger, but rather a storage site.

Still, until "Forever Remembered," no piece of Challenger had been raised for study or display.

Unlike Challenger, NASA catalogued the 84,000 pieces of Columbia that were recovered, and, after its investigation, stored them in a converted room located on the 16th floor of the same Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center that once readied Columbia for launch. To this day, researchers can request and have been granted debris on loan for study.

NASA moved at least three pieces of Columbia, including its data recorder and a side hatch window, to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama and Kennedy Space Center so employees could view them. In 2008, NASA also toured a small collection of the orbiter's debris around its centers as part of an exhibit devoted to promoting safety. That display was open to employees but not the public.

The only artifacts flown on 51L and 107 on public view up to now were U.S. flags and mission patches, and a few of the crews' personal items, which were presented or loaned to museums across the nation, including the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

"The artifacts here are not easy to look at. Many of them are on display for the very first time," Bolden said. "It's our hope that by making them available for the public to view, we will help remind the world that every launch, discovery, every measure of progress is possible only because of the sacrifice of those we have lost.”

"Forever Remembered" closes with videos highlighting the recoveries from the two shuttles' loss from three different perspectives. One of the videos focuses on the emotional responses, featuring children's letters sent to NASA in the wake of the accidents; the second video covers the debris collection and investigation; and the third is about how the agency returned the shuttle to flight.

"The memorial also honors the people who served in the shuttle program throughout its rich history," said Bolden. "Those who rose to the challenge of Return to Flight twice and solved the problems so missions could continue."

Click through to collectSPACE to see more photographs and to watch family members of the fallen astronauts discuss NASA’s "Forever Remembered" exhibit.

Follow on Facebookand on Twitter at @collectSPACE. Copyright 2015 All rights reserved.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Robert Z. Pearlman Editor, Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.