Miami’s oft-overlooked Challenger Memorial gets new attention

On January 28, 1986 the crew members of the Space Shuttle Challenger “Teacher in Space” mission lifted off from Pad 39B at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.

Seventy-three seconds into the flight, the fuel tanks exploded. All seven astronauts, Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis and teacher Christa McAuliffe were immediately killed. America mourned.

Then-President Ronald Reagan canceled his State of the Union speech, converting it into an elegy for those who perished

“This is truly a national loss,” he told a shell-shocked nation. “The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them.”

Joel Menendez, a 43-year-old middle school history teacher from Miami, recalls that day. “All I remember is being in my fifth-grade classroom watching the Challenger launch live on TV, when ‘Boom,’ that thing exploded and my teacher ran to turn off the TV.” 

As a result of that tragedy, memorials were built across the country. The grandest and most celebrated was designed by famed Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who died a few weeks before the memorial was officially unveiled on December 30, 1988, without seeing his work completed. The double helix-shaped steel and granite sculpture firmly stands in the southwest corner of Bayfront Park in Miami. 

Since the release on September 16, 2020 by Netflix of “Challenger: The Final Flight,” a docuseries that points out the perspective of everyone affected by the aftermath of the space shuttle explosion, the memorial has received more attention than it has for years. One sign of the docuseries popularity: on YouTube, the official trailer has generated more than 262,000 views. 

Led by famed newscaster Ralph Renick, Miamians joinedperpetual maintenance to create the memorial in honor of the seven crew members, including Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher from Concord, New Hampshire who had been chosen from more than 11,000 applicants to be the first civilian in space. 

Why a memorial in Miami? As local historian Professor Paul George said, “A city in Florida needed to do a beautiful, serious memorial to that tragedy in January 1986 because we’re the state that kind of birthed the whole space thing in the United States and beyond. And that’s exactly why Renick thought it would be important to pay tribute to those lives we lost.” 

The memorial was funded by donations from Miami-Dade schoolchildren and their families, and the trust fund of Lamar Louise Curry, a social studies Miami Senior High School teacher who made many contributions to Miami. Besides being an only child and never getting married, Lamar inherited from her father a lot of real estate in the Florida Keys and in Miami. She had a lot of love for Miami and its people.  

As Paul George said, “she had the time and the desire to help the community and so she had to be one of the moving forces for the idea”. And that’s exactly what she did.

Lamar’s fund along with the donations covers the expenses of the white granite monument that stands at 100 feet, its grassy green garden with several flowers surrounding it, and a stone triangle that lies in front of the sculpture that bears the last names of the victims and a poem dedicated to them.

Although the work of art was built with great precision and dedication, and cost $250,000, (about $790,000 in 2020), skateboarders in Miami have not given it the respect it deserves.

“It was a place where skateboarders liked to skateboard,” said Timothy Schmand, former Executive Director at Bayfront Park Management Trust. “So they would come off the monument and then hit that triangle with their skateboard.” 

To this day, the sculpture requires repainting every four to five years. The garden surrounding it needs perpetual maintenance. 

Almost three and a half decades after the tragedy, Bayfront Park continues to display a wonderful piece of art in honor of the seven crew members who perished in the accident.

Gabriela Enamorado is a junior at Florida International University majoring in journalism and minoring in History. She grew up in Fort Lauderdale and hopes to one day work for a magazine or newspaper.