08/08/2011 11:45 am ET | Updated Oct 08, 2011

Space History in DC: White Roses for Explorers, Part 2

Events of July 4, 2011

At this point, I wasn't too far from the Tomb of the Unknowns, so decided to head there next. I happened to be just in time to watch the Changing of the Guard ceremony. There were dozens of people sitting on the steps of the Memorial Amphitheater to watch, but all of them were respectfully silent as they watched. The precision of the guards seemed just as impressive as it had when I'd visited in 8th grade.

From the front of the amphitheater, I could see the Columbia and Challenger memorials, but the crowd that had been on the steps all seemed to head there next, so I decided to take some time photographing the neoclassical architecture of the Memorial Amphitheater and to wait until it would be less crowded.

When the crowd had left, I crossed the street over to the memorials, which stand on either side of the Iran Hostage Rescue Memorial. There were a lot of little birds at Arlington, but as I approached, I saw that one had alighted on top of the Challenger memorial. The sight made me smile.

Next to the two shuttle memorials is the individual grave of Francis "Dick" Scobee, the Challenger's commander and a personal hero of mine. The grass around the base of his headstone had grown up a little bit, so I knelt down and started pulling some of the longer pieces out, to make it easier to see the inscription. After that, still on my knees, I got out one of the roses and put it at the base.

"Are you family?" I heard a voice from behind me ask. I'd thought I was alone, but a woman and her adult son had come over while my back had been turned.

At first, I wasn't sure how to respond. Did she think I looked like Commander Scobee? (Did I, aside from having brown hair?) Did I look old enough to have been alive at the time of the disaster? Was I weird for doing this if I wasn't family?

"No, just... just someone who cares." I said, awkwardly.

"My dad said he saw it blow up. He was watching right there, on the coast. I'm getting choked up just thinking about it. We grew up in Florida, in space country..." she said, and proceeded to tell me the whole story of where she had been that day.

She and her son shuffled on after that, and I left flowers at both of the shuttle monuments, as well as at each of the individual graves of the three Columbia crew members who were buried behind there -- Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark, and David Brown. Their names weren't on the "Exploration and Space" listing on the map, but that didn't matter. They got their flowers all the same.

I felt like I ought to say something again. "Thank you." I whispered "We didn't stop. We built the space station and it's finished now. The last space shuttle is going to take off this week. And then we're going to build new rockets and go beyond Earth orbit. To Mars, eventually. So it wasn't in vain. Thank you all."

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