RALEIGH, N.C. - Even prior to he could drive a automobile, Michael Smith wanted to fly. The Beaufort native, who grew up a few miles down the road from a small nearby airport that now bears his name, qualified for his pilot's license a few days before turning 16. Twenty-four years later, he was the pilot on the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle mission that killed all seven astronauts aboard.
Smith's name still resonates 25 years later within the coastal town he called home: it's on a memorial near the waterfront, on the airport exactly where he learned to fly as a teenager and in a part of Beaufort Elementary School packed with exhibits about his life and also the space program.
"So many people here in Beaufort knew Michael Smith," stated Vicki Fritz, principal with the school, which opened up the Michael J. Smith Air and Space Mini-Museum last year on the 24th anniversary of the tragedy.
Inside, murals depict a midnight-blue evening sky dotted with stars. Memorabilia amounts from a tire that was on the space shuttle that followed the Challenger to mementoes from a career that included a stint as a naval aviator in the Vietnam War.
A recent donation towards the museum is really a letter Smith typed and sent to a cousin across the time of his 16th birthday. Together with talk about high school basketball and an upcoming dance, Smith confesses to becoming nervous about whether he'll get his pilot's license, and a opportunity to fly solo.
At the bottom is an ecstatic postscript: "I went flying, all correct. I soloed!!!!"
The Challenger disaster, broadcast live on television on the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, remains NASA's most high-profile disaster along with a searing memory for millions, who keep in mind the indelible pictures and nationwide grief.
Christa McAuliffe, a new Hampshire school teacher who was the first participator in the federal agency's "Teacher in Space" plan to join a shuttle mission, remains probably the most well-known victim with the tragedy. But Smith, who carried a North Carolina flag along on what was his first space shuttle mission, remains foremost in the minds of individuals around Beaufort.
"He was just a farmboy, maybe a little bit smarter than most," said his younger brother Pat, a fellow Navy veteran who still lives within the area. "From the time he was about 15 years old he wanted to fly, and he worked hard and did it."
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