Editor's note: This article was last updated Jan. 28 at 8:26 p.m.

BEAUFORT — With Tuesday marking the 34th anniversary of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, a brother of the shuttle’s pilot, Capt. Michael J. Smith, remembers the tragic event as if it was yesterday.

“I was on my way back (from Cape Canaveral, Fla.) because they had told us it (the shuttle) wouldn’t fly because of the weather,” Pat Smith, 73, of Beaufort, said Thursday as he sat in his home, which has several photos of Capt. Smith hanging on the walls.

“I had just gotten back (into Beaufort) and it (news of the explosion) came over the radio while I was driving. I pulled over for a minute, then went on to our house. About 10 minutes later people started showing up in our yard. There were news crews and local people.”

The space shuttle Challenger exploded a minute and 13 seconds into its launch over Cape Canaveral Jan. 28, 1986, killing Capt. Smith and the six other crew members, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik and Ellison Onizuka.

Many of Capt. Smith’s relatives still live in Beaufort and the county, including his brothers, Pat and Tony. A sister, Ellen Leonard, lives in Raleigh. Capt. Smith also has several nieces, nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews.

Several of his great-nephews and great-nieces attend Beaufort Middle and Beaufort Elementary schools, where a mini-museum in Capt. Smith’s honor is housed. The late shuttle pilot attended school in Beaufort, graduating from the old Beaufort High School.

“The (elementary) school is our favorite place that has kept his memory alive,” Pat Smith said.

The mini-museum, which was opened Jan. 28, 2010, by Capt. Smith’s family and retired Principal Vicki Fritz, was designed to recognize Capt. Smith and inspire a love of space in students.

Items contained in the museum include an American flag that was carried onboard one of Capt. Smith’s flight missions, a helmet worn by Capt. Smith, a shuttle tire, a tail hook from the aircraft carrier on which Capt. Smith served, flight medals and memorabilia from his family and friends.

Beaufort Elementary School Principal Karen Woods said she was excited to learn of the museum in the school when she took the school’s top leadership post in 2016.

“It is such an honor to have the Michael J. Smith Museum in our school. As our students pass through this area each day, they are reminded that the sky is the limit for them... even as residents and students right here in little Beaufort, North Carolina,” Ms. Woods said in an email. “There is a big world out there, but big dreams begin right here in our school.”

Capt. Smith’s family also created a scholarship in his memory, which is now given to a Carteret Community College student. It was formerly given to an East Carteret High School graduate.

To honor their brother’s legacy, Pat Smith said for the last few years he and his siblings get together at his house to share memories of the late pilot, who always had his eyes to the sky.

“He always wanted to be a Navy fighter pilot. But after man’s first landing on the moon, that inspired him to enter the space program,” Pat Smith said.

He and Capt. Smith were close in age, and the two shared a love for flying.

“We used to fly together quite a bit,” he said.

Both entered the Navy, with Capt. Smith receiving an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. While their paths temporarily diverged, the brothers ended up together as flight instructors in 1969 and 1970 at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Kingsville, Texas.

“We had a lot of fun back then,” Pat Smith recalled.

Capt. Smith graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1967 and was a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, earning numerous decorations for combat, including the Distinguished Flying Cross. After the war, he became a Navy test pilot and was selected in May 1980 for the astronaut program.

Congress promoted him posthumously to the rank of captain and a chair was named in his honor at the U.S. Navy Postgraduate School. Among his other posthumous awards is the Purple Heart medal.

An additional honor was bestowed on Capt. Smith by the state last July when a historical marker in his honor was unveiled at Highway 101 and Airport Road. The marker sits near the entrance to the local airport, which is named in his memory. Capt. Smith took his first solo flight from the facility as a teenager.

Pat Smith said he was grateful the state’s Highway Historical Marker Program wanted to honor his late brother in such a way.

“That they even considered that was so special to us,” Pat Smith said. “We didn’t expect anything like that.”

The text on the 30-inch by 42-inch cast aluminum marker reads “MICHAEL J. SMITH, 1945-1986. Astronaut, Navy aviator. Pilot of ill-fated space shuttle Challenger, lost Jan. 28, 1986. Recipient, Space Medal of Honor. Lived ½ mile south.”

Capt. Smith was also included in April 2018 in an exhibit at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh as part of a 50th anniversary celebration of man’s first walk on the moon. His story and a North Carolina state flag that Capt. Smith flew on a mission were included in the museum exhibit.

He’s also part of the museum’s online exhibit, which can be viewed at mosaicnc.org/space-race.

“Our intention is to leave it online for as long as the Mosaic publishing project exists,” Jessica Bandel, digital editor with the Historical Research Office in Raleigh, said Friday in an email.

Historic information about the Challenger disaster and Capt. Smith are based on information from NASA’s website.

Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 255; email Cheryl@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.

(Previous report)

BEAUFORT — With Tuesday marking the 34th anniversary of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, a brother of the shuttle’s pilot, Capt. Michael J. Smith, remembers the tragic event as if it was yesterday.

“I was on my way back (from Cape Canaveral, Fla.) because they had told us it (the shuttle) wouldn’t fly because of the weather,” Pat Smith, 73, of Beaufort, said Thursday as he sat in his home, which has several photos of Capt. Smith hanging on the walls.

“I had just gotten back (into Beaufort) and it (news of the explosion) came over the radio while I was driving. I pulled over for a minute, then went on to our house. About 10 minutes later people started showing up in our yard. There were news crews and local people.”

The space shuttle Challenger exploded a minute and 13 seconds into its launch over Cape Canaveral Jan. 28, 1986, killing Capt. Smith and the six other crew members, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik and Ellison Onizuka.

Many of Capt. Smith’s relatives still live in Beaufort and the county, including his brothers, Pat and Tony. A sister, Ellen Leonard, lives in Raleigh. Capt. Smith also has several nieces, nephews, great- nieces and great-nephews.

Several of his great- nephews and great-nieces attend Beaufort Middle and Beaufort Elementary, schools where a mini-museum in Capt. Smith’s honor is housed. The late shuttle pilot attended school in Beaufort, graduating from the old Beaufort High School.

“The school is our favorite place that has kept his memory alive,” Pat Smith said.

The mini-museum, which was opened Jan. 28, 2010, by Capt. Smith’s family and retired Principal Vicki Fritz, was designed to recognize Capt. Smith and inspire a love of space in students.

Items contained in the museum include an American flag that was carried onboard one of Capt. Smith’s flight missions, a helmet worn by Capt. Smith, a shuttle tire, a tail hook from the aircraft carrier on which Capt. Smith served, flight medals and memorabilia from his family and friends.

Beaufort Elementary School Principal Karen Woods said she was excited to learn of the museum in the school when she took the school’s top leadership post in 2016.

“It is such an honor to have the Michael J. Smith Museum in our school. As our students pass through this area each day, they are reminded that the sky is the limit for them... even as residents and students right here in little Beaufort, North Carolina,” Ms. Woods said in an email. “There is a big world out there, but big dreams begin right here in our school.”

Capt. Smith’s family also created a scholarship in his memory, which is now given to a Carteret Community College student. It was formerly given to an East Carteret High School graduate.

To honor their brother’s legacy, Pat Smith said for the last few years he and his siblings get together at his house to share memories of the late pilot, who always had his eyes to the sky.

“He always wanted to be a Navy fighter pilot. But after man’s first landing on the moon, that inspired him to enter the space program,” Pat Smith said.

He and Capt. Smith were close in age, so the two shared a love for flying.

“We used to fly together quite a bit,” he said.

Both entered the Navy, with Capt. Smith receiving an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. While their paths were temporarily separated, the brothers ended up together as flight instructors in 1969 and 1970 at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Kingsville, Texas.

“We had a lot of fun back then,” Pat Smith recalled.

Capt. Smith graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1967 and was a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, earning numerous decorations for combat, including the Distinguished Flying Cross. After the war, he became a Navy test pilot and was selected in May 1980 for the astronaut program.

Congress promoted him posthumously to the rank of captain and a chair was named in his honor at the U.S. Navy Postgraduate School. Among his other posthumous awards is the Purple Heart medal.

An additional honor was bestowed on Capt. Smith by the state last July when a historical marker in his honor was unveiled at Highway 101 and Airport Road. The marker sits near the entrance to the local airport, which is named in his memory. Capt. Smith took his first solo flight from the facility as a teenager.

Pat Smith said he was grateful the state’s Highway Historical Marker Program wanted to honor his late brother in such a way.

“That they even considered that was so special to us,” Pat Smith said. “We didn’t expect anything like that.”

The text on the 30-inch by 42-inch cast aluminum marker reads “MICHAEL J. SMITH, 1945-1986. Astronaut, Navy aviator. Pilot of ill-fated space shuttle Challenger, lost Jan. 28, 1986. Recipient, Space Medal of Honor. Lived ½ mile south.”

Capt. Smith was also included in April in an exhibit at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh as part of a 50th anniversary celebration of man’s first walk on the moon. His story and a North Carolina state flag that Capt. Smith flew on a mission were included in the museum exhibit.

He’s also part of the museum’s online exhibit, which can be viewed at http://mosaicnc.org/space-race.

“Our intention is to leave it online for as long as the Mosaic publishing project exists,” Jessica A. Bandel, digital editor with the Historical Research Office in Raleigh, said Friday in an email.

 

Historic information about the Challenger disaster and Capt. Smith are based on information from NASA’s website.

Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 255; email Cheryl@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.

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