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Stained glass reflects on astronauts' lives

In the Kansas Cosmosphere rotunda, workers install one of three panes of an 8 by 11 foot stained glass that commemorates the 17 fallen U.S. asronauts. The stained glass display was created over the course of 18 months by 19 artists. (Cosmosphere)
March 2, 2006 — Beginning today, visitors to the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson may find themselves moved to a more a reverential state of mind.

Unveiled at a private ceremony held Tuesday night, the Cosmosphere's latest addition is an 8- by 11-foot stained glass creation that pays tribute to 17 fallen astronauts.

"People would actually walk by [it] and whisper... it had this glow about it, this aura," said Randy Rayer, CEO and president of Rayer's Bearden Stained Glass Supply in an interview with collectSPACE.

"You just get this feeling [looking at the glass] that you should be reverent."

More than just glass

The artwork's design memorializes the men and women whose lives were lost in the 1967 Apollo 1 pad fire and the in-flight accidents that occurred during space shuttles Challenger and Columbia's 1986 and 2003 final missions, respectively.

Etched into the top of the glass are the names of the 17 fallen astronauts.

The stained glass display incorporates flown space shuttle tiles from earlier Challenger and Columbia missions (top, bottom) and a wiring block from the Apollo 1 pad (middle). (Cosmosphere)
Central in the glass's focus is an astronaut posed with outstretched arms and legs, reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man. Surrounding "him" are planets and galaxies, as well as a Saturn IB rocket and space shuttle launching towards the heavens.

"The thematics around [the astronaut] were a combination of symbols related to the triumphs and tragedies of space flight," Cosmosphere President and CEO Jeff Ollenburger told collectSPACE, "but their real purpose was to capture the spirit of space flight — even amidst the difficult times the need to explore needs to continue to come out."

"We wrapped the Kansas state motto around [the Apollo astronaut] — Ad Astra per Aspera [To the stars through difficulty], and that really made this project come to life," said Ollenburger.

At the foot of the glass are three encased artifacts that each have a connection to one of the lost crews.

"The items embedded in the glass are components from — as it relates to the shuttle program — two earlier flights that were removed after flight and part of our collection: a white tile and a black tile from Columbia and Challenger," explained Ollenburger. "Then we worked with contacts in Florida to come up with a piece of Pad 34, an electrical component, and that was our tangible tie-in to [Apollo 1]."

More than just one artist

At the bottom of the glass are the names of 19 artists, along with a description of the work they contributed to the piece.

"There were several people who really wanted to help," recounted Rayer, "so I hand selected 19 of some of the best glass artists in Kansas."

"There were certain artists that were good at fusing glass, some were good at leading glass... so we split it up."

"We actually had almost 4,000 hours [of artist time] in it," tallied Rayer. "Just my two team members, Beth Palyash and Doug Bozeman, who I brought in to just head up the project, they actually have 1200 hours [between] the two [of them] together, changing drawings, choosing glass, calling artists, making sure this went together, re-cutting something that wasn't right... I mean, they might take an 8-foot square piece of glass and they might take just two inches out of the center of it, because they want the color right here. They would destroy a whole sheet of glass to get just one asteroid," explained Rayer.

"I was standing in awe [of them] most of time, saying 'Oh my gosh, that's awesome.' So, I don't want to take all the credit," said Rayer. "I did put the pool together, but in the very end, everybody was swimming in it. It was great."

First and lasting impressions

The Kansas Cosmosphere's stained glass tribute. (Cosmosphere)
"I have to admit that pictures do not do it justice," said Ollenburger. "The color detail and the texture changes as the light moves across it. As you stand before it and as you move around the piece, it just seems to come alive."

"That's really the tribute we were trying to accomplish."

"The future of space flight is continuing and its always changing and its always moving. It is as breathtaking as anything that you can imagine."

"I think that art does that. It does as good a job, or a better job than anything of capturing something that most of us, unfortunately, will never get to experience."

Above all else, Ollenburger hopes that visitors will be able to relate the theme of the tribute to their own lives.

"The major theme of 'to the stars through difficulties' we hope resonates. Not all of us get to fly in space, but we have all faced challenges and all have had dark moments that we can either choose to emerge from and continue to push ourselves, or we can accept that fate and regress. Space flight is all about picking up that torch from those who have gone before us and continuing that journey; not forgetting that sacrifice but learning from it."

"I think there is a tremendous spirit that can be shared with everybody when you accept that challenge and keep the mission going," said Ollenburger.

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