BEAUFORT, N.C. (WNCT) — Beaufort is where one of the seven astronauts on the Space Shuttle Challenger was born and raised.

On Jan. 28, 1986, Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff. Michael J. Smith, a Beaufort native, was the captain of the shuttle. Now, 36 years after that tragic day, people in Beaufort continue to honor his memory.


“The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.” — then-President Ronald Reagan in an address to the nation following the Challenger explosion.

AP Photo/Virginian-Pilot, Michele McDonald

“Many people remember that day specifically because it was a momentous occasion, we were sending seven amazing astronauts up into space. But 74 seconds into that flight, we were witnessing a tragedy,” said Beaufort Mayor Sharon Harker.

Smith grew up to become an engineer in Beaufort and, later, an astronaut.

“We’re here on the 36th anniversary of the launch of the challenger … so it’s time to honor those men and women and look at the accomplishments that they have done over their lifetime,” Harker said.

(Claire Curry, WNCT photo)

Harker, like so many in the small Carteret County town, remembered the memory of the Challenger astronauts, especially Smith.

“We have our airport that’s named after him. We have A highway marker on Highway 101,” Harker said. “We also have a monument down on the Front Street, the boardwalk area. And then we also have mementos here in our visiting center.”

Harker added the Challenger is also remembered a lot through their schools. Beaufort Elementary has moments from the launch so children can understand what happened years later.

(Claire Curry, WNCT photo)

“When you come from a small town … I think Michael J. Smith just gives us an opportunity to see that you can become anything that you want it to do,” Harker said. “Don’t worry about the size of the town that you live in. So we look at that so that we can say to our young children, you can be anything you want to even an astronaut coming from Beaufort.”