Cape Canaveral, Fla. NASA officials are delicately seeking advice about what to do with the 84,000 shattered pieces from Columbia, cautiously broaching the idea of putting some shuttle parts on display.
There is no precedent for publicly displaying disasters from the U.S. space program. And in the case of Columbia, there are mixed feelings among the survivors of the astronauts.
"It touches everybody who sees it," said Jonathan Clark, husband of astronaut Laurel Clark. "It has a tremendous impact on you. It makes you realize the importance of space exploration."
Kirstie McCool Chadwick, sister of pilot Willie McCool, said she supports the debris being used for research, but "I don't know what the purpose of displaying it in public would be. I'm not sure that it makes sense to me."
Officials from several cities have written NASA asking for pieces of Columbia for their own memorials, and curators at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington have been holding informal discussions with the space agency.
A decision may come by the end of this month. For now, the debris is spread on the floor of a hangar at the Kennedy Space Center. It will remain there until the end of August when the Columbia Accident Investigation Board is expected to issue its report on the cause of the disaster. The shuttle broke apart over Texas on Feb. 1, killing all seven astronauts.
"One thing we're not going to do, which was done with the Challenger, is lock it up and bury it and pretend that it didn't happen," NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe said recently.
Curators at the Smithsonian museum plan to review the debris to see what pieces they may be interested in acquiring.
"Initially, we wouldn't have plans for it to go on display, only to collect it for preservation as historic artifact," said Valerie Neal, a space history curator at the museum. "What we might do in the future, I just don't know."
The Air and Space museum has all the spacecraft from the Mercury and Apollo programs, except the Liberty Bell 7 and Apollo 1. The Liberty capsule carrying astronaut Gus Grissom sank in the Atlantic after the hatch blew off prematurely in 1961. Grissom escaped unhurt; the capsule was recovered in 1999 and is part of a traveling exhibition currently at the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix.
Three astronauts, including Grissom, died in the Apollo 1 launch pad fire in 1967. The only artifact the museum has from Challenger is a flag from the mission kit.
The museum has never had an exhibit on aviation or aerospace disasters, although a previous exhibit on airships had charred artifacts from the Hindenburg, said Peter Jakab, a curator in the museum's division of aeronautics.
The obvious reason for not having such displays is "the ghoulish factor," he said. "We focus on the technological successes of aerospace."
NASA has also sought guidance on handling the makeshift memorials of flowers and cards left outside its facilities. Joel Walker, NASA's acting director of center operations directorate, talked with officials at the Oklahoma City National Museum, which honors the 168 people who died in the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.
"I said to NASA, 'What do you intend to do?"' said Jane Thomas, collections manager at the Oklahoma City memorial. "They went away and came back and said they were really up in the air about that and supposed they wanted to do some exhibit."