Global Effort Expedites Columbia Crew Memorial

Florida Today - July 24, 2003

By Corey Schubert

The Space Mirror

The Space Mirror is 42-feet high and 50-feet wide. The names of 17 astronauts and pilots are etched on the mirror. The Columbia astronauts names will be unveiled in October. The letters are clear acrylic, allowing sunlight in the day and powerful lights at night to illuminate the names at all times.

Because the wall's structure could not sustain removing two panels long enough to have them engraved, officials had to search for the same type of granite that could be engraved and properly substitute the existing panels. They learned this existed in a quarry in India. A mineral exporting company arranged to have the granite blasted from the quarry, cut into two panels and shipped to America at no cost.

The process of blasting the stone and shipping it to America usually takes about six to eight months, but officials in India -- noting their respect for Indian-born astronaut Kalpana Chawla -- saw to it the granite arrived in Iowa within two weeks, said Bob Sawyer, owner of Creative Edge Mastershop.

In Iowa, Singer and nine employees began the complex process of etching the astronauts' names into the stone, which took about two weeks.

The letters first were cut completely through the two-inch thick panels by using a water-jet machine that sprays water into the stone at about 50,000 pounds of pressure. Workers then cut and inserted crystal clear acrylic letters by hand into the letter spaces. Each acrylic letter was minutely jagged to diffuse the light like a diamond in the sky, Sawyer said.

Singer stayed awake for more than 30 hours to drive the two completed panels to north Brevard County in a company truck, his mind fueled along the way by imagining the names immortalized in the sky.

Last week, W&J Construction in Rockledge used forklifts and a crane to remove two blank panels from the memorial wall and install the new pieces. The company, along with Creative Edge, charged the foundation only for the materials they used while working on the project.

Panels bearing astronauts' names are placed on the wall in random locations "so we don't take away from or add to the significance of any group of astronauts," Feldman said.

Lights will be placed behind the new panels in the next few days, officials said.

Near the Space Mirror Memorial, a 6-foot-wide by 6-foot-long granite wall that showcases photos and biographies of the Columbia astronauts will be unveiled at the upcoming ceremony.

A "memorial garden" of flowers will later be installed in the grassy area in front of the memorial, officials said.■

The immensity of space travel had escaped Jim Singer for years.

The names of astronauts who roared off the planet failed to inspire the Iowa man while he worked to engrave masterpieces into metal, stone and other tough elements.

But when Singer started on a project that involved carefully chiseling into granite the names of the seven astronauts who died in the Shuttle Columbia disaster, he soon found himself staying up late to watch movies about the space program and scouring the Internet for news about NASA.

"Being part of this memorial has really put feeling and meaning into what the space program is all about," said Singer, project manager of Creative Edge Mastershop in Fairfield, Iowa.

Workers recently installed two new panels bearing the astronauts' names into the Space Mirror Memorial, a 42-foot-high and 50-foot-wide wall near the entrance to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

A black veil will cover the 500-pound panels until they are unveiled at an official ceremony involving the astronauts' families in late October. When uncovered, the names will join those of 17 other fallen astronauts on the wall.

Illuminated by the sun's rays during the day and projected by powerful lights at night, the names will be emblazoned in the sky continuously throughout the year.

"We knew this was our obligation to memorialize these astronauts as soon as the tragedy happened," said Dr. Steve Feldman, executive director of the Astronauts Memorial Foundation that created the Space Mirror Memorial.

The nonprofit group was formed after the Challenger accident in 1986 to honor all U.S. astronauts who lost their lives on missions or while training for missions. The foundation also operates the Center for Space Education at the KSC Visitor Complex as a "living memorial" to the astronauts.

The Space Mirror Memorial, dedicated in 1991 by former Vice President Dan Quayle, was designated a national memorial by Congress and former President George H. Bush.

In the mirror-finish of the memorial wall's polished granite, the reflection of an American flag billows from a nearby pole. Throughout the day, dozens of tourists approach the sleek monument and tilt their heads back to take in its enormity.

In the days immediately after the Columbia tragedy, thousands of people from throughout the world flocked to the Space Mirror Memorial to grieve with strangers. Their tears and hugs were reflected in its 90 panels, along with hundreds of homemade cards and bouquets of flowers they left at its base.

Shortly after the new panels are unveiled, Astronaut Memorial Foundation officials planned to re-display the bevy of heartfelt mementos they collected in the wake of the disaster.

"We want to remind people of how this touched so many," said Feldman, as he squeezed a stuffed teddy bear plucked from among dozens of boxes brimming over with similar items.

The same respect and compassion that brought people to the memorial has led to creating and adding the new panels to the wall, he said.

Every business involved in the project either offered their services at no cost or charged the foundation only for the materials involved, Feldman said.