BEAUFORT — The unveiling of a historic marker in honor of the late space shuttle Challenger pilot Capt. Michael J. Smith is set for 10 a.m. Friday near the airport where the Beaufort native took his solo flight as a teenager.
The ceremony, open to the public, will take place at 180 Airport Road near the intersection of Airport Road and Highway 101. The marker is being placed near a green directional sign that marks the way to Michael J. Smith Field Airport, which is named in his honor.
Those attending can park in the parking lot of Maranatha Pentecostal Holiness Church, which is at the intersection of Highway 101 and Airport Road.
Ava Bryant, director of the Beaufort Boys & Girls Club afterschool program and friend of the Smith family, is coordinating the ceremony, which will include speeches by club members, state and town officials.
“I was really honored to take this on,” Ms. Bryant said Wednesday.
Each year on the anniversary of the Challenger explosion, which took place Jan. 28, 1986, Ms. Bryant conducts educational programs about Capt. Smith and the Challenger with club members at a mini-museum honoring Capt. Smith in the lobby of Beaufort Elementary School.
Ms. Smith said she received an email the first of the year from the state’s Highway Historical Marker Program asking if she and the Boys & Girls Club would head up the dedication ceremony.
“I was speechless,” she said. “It makes me feel proud and like I’ve done well honoring Capt. Smith and his family so far. I have honored the Challenger anniversary year after year to pass the history on to the next generation. To end up in charge of this project makes me feel like we must be doing a good job.”
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.”
Ms. Bryant said one of her main goals in teaching young people about Capt. Smith and the Challenger is to instill a love of space exploration and history.
“I’m hoping since we study space each year some of them may go on to become an astronaut or a pilot someday,” she said.
Ms. Bryant said she plans to do lessons regarding Capt. Smith and the space program this week to prepare children for the unveiling ceremony. She also plans to incorporate more lessons in the future about Capt. Smith’s connection to the airport, which contains several photos and plaques related to the late shuttle pilot.
Michael J. Smith Field Airport Manager Renee Rogers said she feels honored the state is placing a marker for Capt. Smith near the airport.
“It’s exciting to see our airport’s namesake honored in this way,” Ms. Rogers said.
As if taking on the marker dedication ceremony wasn’t enough, Ms. Bryant recently assisted with a project to collect items from the Capt. Smith mini-museum in a state digital museum about the role of North Carolina in the space program. The N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources created the digital museum, which can be found at mosaicnc.org. Items related to Capt. Smith can be found under the Beyond Apollo section.
In an email to the News-Times Wednesday, Ansley Wegner, program administrator with the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program, said she was excited to be a part of honoring Capt. Smith’s legacy.
“The North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program is pleased to provide this historical marker, which will stand for generations to come, to honor the life and legacy of Michael J. Smith,” Ms. Wegner said. “While his story is well known to most of Beaufort’s citizens, it is our hope that the marker will help educate Beaufort’s many visitors about Smith’s contributions to space exploration.”
Jessica Bandel, digital editor with the historical research office in Raleigh, who assisted with the marker project, as well as the digital museum, agreed it was an honor. She plans to attend the unveiling ceremony.
“A nice fact about Mr. Smith’s marker… it is one of four in the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program that relate to NASA history,” Ms. Bandel said.
The other three markers relate to NASA Tracking (a satellite tracking station in Transylvania County), James E. Webb (the second administrator to NASA who is from Granville County) and Astronaut Training (celestial navigation training provided by Morehead Planetarium).
As for the space shuttle Challenger, it exploded just 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 family members still live in the county. According to history provided by the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, Capt. Smith left his family farm for the U.S. Naval Academy in June 1963 at age 18. Upon graduation four years later, he entered Naval Postgraduate School and obtained a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering.
He received his aviator wings in May 1969. Capt. Smith’s Navy career consisted of a couple of stints as a flight instructor, an assignment in Vietnam, where he flew 198 missions, and more flight training at the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School.
He was accepted as an astronaut candidate in May 1980 and completed the necessary training and evaluation period to be qualified as a shuttle pilot by August of the following year. He soon rose to the rank of commander and served in a variety of leadership roles within NASA.
In 1985, he was tapped to pilot the Challenger on its 10th mission. Tragically, the shuttle flight proved to be Capt. Smith’s first and last.
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.
(Historic information about the Challenger disaster and Capt. Smith are from the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources and from NASA’s website.)
Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 255; email Cheryl@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.