CONTACT 67 CENOTAPH
[48,000 feet east of Launch Pad LC 39-B; Cape Canaveral, Florida.]
Appeared in "Singlehandedly: Contemporary Architects Draw by Hand," by Nalina Moses.
Published by the Princeton Architectural Press (2019)
Exhibited at Art Omi, New York. 'Single-Handedly.' (2020)
On January 28th, 1986 the Space Shuttle Challenger [Orbital Vehicle designation OV-99] launched from pad LC-39B, at 11:38:00.010 EST, just north of the horn of Cape Canaveral. It was the shuttle’s tenth flight mission, and would be its last. 73.124 seconds after lift-off, the Challenger broke apart following the structural failure of its main hydrogen tank. A series of subsequent, nearly instantaneous structural failures resulted in a fireball that engulfed the craft at an altitude of 48,000 feet. Due to the complete disintegration of the main external tank and to the right solid rocket booster detaching from its structural framework, the shuttle’s propulsion vector was altered dramatically. Resultant aerodynamic forces tore the craft apart. Both solid rocket boosters survived the event, essentially intact, and continued to accelerate away from the debris cloud in uncontrolled flight.
The crew cabin module was also ejected from the scattering wreckage of the launch vehicle, likewise intact, having been designed to withstand far greater stress. It continued to gain altitude for 25 seconds following event—cresting at an altitude of 65,000 feet. At this point, the module and its crew of seven began to fall, and eventually struck the surface of the Atlantic Ocean approximately 1 minute and 40 seconds after its crest at a speed of 207mph, and an impact force of 200g. Challenger’s crew comprised five astronauts and two payload specialists: Commander Francis R. Scobee, Pilot Michael J. Smith, Mission Specialist Ronald McNair, Mission Specialist Ellison Onizuka, Mission Specialist Judith Resnik, Payload Specialist Gregory Jarvis, and Payload Specialist Christina McAuliffe. None survived the tragedy.
Following the disaster, a special commission was appointed by President Reagan to investigate the circumstances leading to the event, and the exact nature of the shuttle’s destruction. Included in the team were famed physicist Richard Feynman—noted for his contributions to the field of quantum mechanics. The Commission’s final report was submitted to President Reagan just over four months later, on June 9th.
The Commission’s primary finding was that the Challenger’s destruction event could be traced back to the failure of a pivotal component at launch; sealing gaskets called O-rings. The failure took place on the right solid rocket booster’s aft field joint, where a connection was not properly made due to the unusually cold weather conditions on the morning of the launch, which restricted the gasket material from expanding and forming the proper seal. Pressurized gas eventually ignited and blew past the joint, and resultant flames bored through the adjacent external tank—setting off the string of structural failures that split the craft apart in flight. From launch, the entire process took 73 seconds. Richard Feynman famously demonstrated the gaskets’ inability to expand correctly under cold conditions by submerging a sample of the material in a glass of ice water on live television.
Also crucial in the Rogers’ Commission findings were its conclusions drawn pertaining to the crew module’s demise. Extensive analysis of video footage allowed the Commission to identify and track the path of several debris objects as they fell toward the sea. One of which, classified Object D, was discovered to be the crew module itself. NASA proved understandably reluctant to comment on the issue of whether or not the Challenger’s crew survived the initial breakup. Still, the question of the crew’s survival and exact time and cause of death was determined by the Commission to depend on whether or not the module was ruptured—and so depressurized—during the event. Had that been the case, the astronauts would have lost consciousness within seconds and not survived the full duration of the fall.
However, the report shows that air consumption levels within the module wreckage suggest the capsule did not rupture, remained pressurized, and we understand it to be plausible if not likely that the crew was alive and conscious until the moment of impact. The Commission then mapped the impact locations of several objects of interest, including Object D, which struck the sea at a distance of 18 nautical miles due east of LC-39B. The precise point of impact is classified Contact Point 67 in the report.
The Cenotaph is sited in the bay at Cape Canaveral, 48,000 feet due east of LC-39B in the direction of Contact 67. Access to the Cenotaph by ferry should be provided under the direction of the Kennedy Space Center, in similar fashion to the amphibious U.S.S. Arizona Memorial at Ford Island, in Pearl Harbor. Rising from a colossal structural pier, the monument takes the form of a battered monolith split along its height and facing due east over the Atlantic.
The Cenotaph’s exaggerated height is at once fixated upon the sky; the site of the Challenger’s fatal moments—and operates to lend the structure the primary form of a menhir, in our contention not only the first and oldest of all architectural inclinations but also the primeval morphology of the veneration of the dead. An elliptical void is carved into the standing stone, where inside a ring of cypress trees are planted along the wall marking the central space as one of mourning. The geometry of the void is shaped in accordance with the movement of all heavenly objects. As such, we suggest the application of the ellipse as the major organizing principle for the Cenotaph, and inscribe it within the golden section.
Following that organizational system, both focal points of the interior space are inhabited by circular pits of a 12 foot diameter. The westernmost houses a sculpture configured of black ceramic tiles harvested from the wreckage of the Challenger’s ventral envelope. The result is an approximated likeness; a distorted image of the crew module, Object D, crafted from the precise materials meant to mitigate structural failures due to heat. Central in this mechanism is the implication that the ceramic coating is designed for protection during the process of atmospheric re-entry, an act of astronomical return in part of the crew, that never came to pass. The sculpture is set down precisely at sea-level and viewed from above, frozen at the exact moment of impact. The major structural plate of the module opposite the bulkhead was recovered in 1986 and included in the documents finally declassified in 2014. This allows for a measured judgement to be made about the original size of the module itself: roughly 12 feet. The easternmost focus is marked by an empty pit of identical measure, though sunk to a depth of 80 feet and filled by access channels from the east with seawater. Though it shares dimension, the eastern focus is rather a precise re-creation of the Minuteman silo typology, as the entirety of the wreckage salvaged from the Challenger out of the Atlantic is currently disposed of within a decommissioned Minuteman silo at Cape Canaveral. That silo measures roughly 12 feet in diameter, and falls to a depth of 80’ underground.
In keeping with the act of raising a monolith over the burial site classified Contact 67, the Cenotaph’s 7 sarcophagi are hewn from the structural pier beneath the major platform—locating all seven members of the crew permanently beneath sea level—and are accessed by a single passageway bent to the ellipse and lit by scarce fixtures tracing along the low ceiling. In crosssection, the claustrophobic passageway approximates the shape of the flight deck, confining the inhabitant to a space not dissimilar from the space in which the crew spent their final moments.
Across both the exterior and interior surfaces of the Cenotaph, individual travertine blocks are omitted at irregular points on internal, revealing the interior infrastructure. Within the walls there is contained a circulatory system that draws seawater up by pump through the inside of the megalith. Where the conduits are exposed, a system of gaskets serve to seal two connection points: one at the top, and one at the bottom of the void. Those gaskets, made of the same material responsible for the Challenger catastrophe, will shrink and let water leak from the interior system in periods of unusually cold temperatures. So will the Cenotaph come to weather over time, as water damage and staining accrue across the white travertine beneath each aperture.
The entire process of decay described here is controlled only by climactic conditions apt to compromise the Challenger. By this mechanism, each day into the future where temperatures at Cape Canaveral fall below that inauspicious mark, the Cenotaph weeps. Over time, the effects of this process produce visible spoiling on the tower itself.
At the far edge of the main level, the megalith is riven open from sea to sky looking eastward over the Atlantic, toward the location of Contact 67; the final resting place of the Challenger’s immortal crew.