Technology and Consciousness in the Brumidi Corridor of the United States Capitol

By John Dyer

The Challenger: Estrangement and Memory

The most recent addition to the corridor is the lunette of the space shuttle Challenger crew, executed in 1987 by Charles Schmidt. Here the corporate nature of the mission and its technology, as well as the isolation of the crew members, has been taken to a new level by the destruction this panel commemorates.

As in the Wright brothers frieze, we are aware of the many individuals necessary to the completion of the space shuttle project. We see the shuttle at its docking bay, too, reminding us like in the Apollo moon landing that there are many components to the launch. The lunette clearly expresses the corporate aspect of the launch.

The individuals, like Orville Wright, are only partially knowledgeable of their space ship. Each one is like a cog in a machine--some fly the shuttle, others conduct experiments, etc. The person who most epitomizes this, and who was indeed a major part of the publicity of the mission is of course Christie McAullife, who was celebrated as a person relatively ignorant of space travel, but who could learn and pass on the knowledge to others. here Franklin's experimentation as well as Fitch's realization of a model are tacit themes.

That the shuttle exploded on take-off raises two questions: first, why was it valorized here in the Brumidi corridor, making it the only failure present in the space? And second, what does a memorial do in terms of the viewers implication in the image?

The first question I think has to do with a sense of nostalgia. In the late 20th century, the loss of personal control and the distance from the technology that has allowed man to dominate the environment has led many to question the assumptions driving the creation of new inventions. Many have come to realize that unlike Fitch and Fulton, we should not seek so much to alter nature as much as we should find ways to respect the forces that we seem so able to exploit. This lunette in this reading has therefore a back-to-the-basics ideology. It changes the corridor from a collection of triumphs to a string of windows onto the past. Hence, it focuses on the people and not on the shuttle, for example.

Second, as viewers this lunette collectivizes and isolates us as no other has before. Previous lunettes contained the lessons they wanted to teach. They wanted to change our preconceptions. This one depends on our preconceptions. The explosion is an event everyone should remember, it says, bringing the nation together in mourning. However, in drawing on our memory, this lunette isolates us like no other can--for it relies on something that an individual can only experience privately.

What will come next no one knows, but until then the two blank spaces remaining in the corridor have the same effect. They unite us as we wait to see who and what will fill them, but leaving us adrift to endure anticipation all by ourselves.