Putting Names In The Sky

'Space Mirror' honors America's dead astronauts

Black granite is a wonderfully expressive material; so much of America's recent history is etched in it. In Washington, the names of 58,175 Americans who died or disappeared on the other side of the world burrow into the sacred American soil, symbolically home at last. And with the dedication this week of "Space Mirror," the astronauts' memorial at Kennedy Space Center, 14 more names, carved in the same immortal stone, shimmer in the sky; they, too, are home at last.

"Space Mirror" is a brilliant solution to the problem of reconciling the sober function of a memorial-which in some way must acknowledge that its subject is dead and in the ground-with a celebration of spaceflight, in a literal sense the highest achievement of humankind. It is hard to imagine improving on the spontaneous memorial that appeared in the sky when the space shuttle Challenger blew up in January 1986: the immense twisted Y of the contrails formed by the solid rocket boosters as they diverged, a graphic depiction of vast power gone berserk. Hanging for hours in the clear, still air over the Atlantic Ocean, it was seen by millions and inspired one of them, a Florida architect named Alan Helman, with the idea of a permanent memorial to the seven men and women who had ridden that trail of vapor to their deaths. NASA recommended expanding the scope of the project to honor the seven other astronauts who had died in the line of duty over the years (three in a launch-pad fire while preparing for an Apollo mission, four others in airplane crashes)' and offered a six-acre site near the entrance to Spaceport USA, the huge tourist receiving-and-processing facility on the outskirts of Kennedy Space Center. Helman persuaded the state to help him raise money through the sale of commemorative license plates, and in 1987 he announced a national competition for the design.

How do you memorialize an astronaut? In the 756 competition entries no idea was left unexplored, with the possible exception of astronauts on horseback. After sifting through innumerable earth sculptures, obelisks, cenotaphs, broken shafts, fountains, arches and spheres, the jurors chose a design by the young San Francisco firm of Holt Hinshaw Pfau Jones. It called for a slab of black granite (actually 93 individual panels), 42.5 feet high and 50 feet wide, polished to a reflective finish, mounted on a platform that rotates and tilts. As the Earth turns, so does the slab, keeping its back to the sun; the names of the astronauts are carved through the stone so that the letters glow with sunlight, floating in a dark field of reflected sky and clouds.

Abstracted from its relation to the sun, the memorial is a fairly ordinary object. The steel frame and the REPORTERS machinery are exposed to view, but the technological statement they make is not all that profound; 18th-century clock-makers also knew how to make things go in circles in time with the sun. The monument looks especially ordinary when glimpsed (as most visitors will first see it) from a car or bus turning into the Spaceport parking lot. With thousands of vacant acres all around, NASA chose a site just yards from the Orbit Cafeteria and Galaxy Center. The agency seemed mostly interested in ensuring that the monument is seen by each of the 3 million tourists who visit the Spaceport annually. But it might not have hurt to put a little distance between death and a place that advertises itself as "Florida's Best Visitor Value." (It's free, if you don't take your taxes into account.)

So it would help, as Holt Hinshaw partner Wes Jones suggests, if everyone viewed "Space Mirror" from close enough to fill one's peripheral vision - close enough for the names to glow with a light that is almost painful and burn and shimmer in one's aftervision as one schleps meditatively back to the bus. It is an astonishing piece of work, and part of its awesome power comes from the realization that it is unfinished. The 14 names take up only five of the granite squares. There is room-and blank squares stored away-for many more.