Never Forgotten—NASA’s Day of Remembrance
February 15, 2019
For those at NASA and beyond, the
crews sacrificed while serving America’s space program live on in our memories
A moment of silence. The
roar of a T-38 above bowed heads—the jet mostly obscured by leaden clouds. And
then … a bugle plays. Another answers the haunting tune from a distance away.
The Texas A&M Corps of
Cadets, Squadron 17, hold their salute through Echo Taps—a revered version of
taps, played slowly and three times in succession. Resplendent in their dress
uniforms, they are at NASA’s Johnson Space Center to pay their respects for the
first time in person.
This solemn ceremony was
center stage during Johnson’s Day of Remembrance the morning of Feb. 7.
Remembering the crews of Apollo
1, Challenger and Columbia, the day brings the NASA family together to honor
the lives of the men and women who have died in service to NASA’s space
We will never forget.
Another group who will
never forget happens to be the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets, Squadron 17—also
known as “Challenger 17.” The Texas A&M Corps of Cadets is the largest,
oldest and most visible student organization and leadership training program at
the university. The Corps is also one of the largest uniformed bodies of
students in the nation, providing hands-on leadership experience to students seeking
to enhance their education.
This particular outfit of
the Corps reactivated in the fall of 1986, then called the “Challenger Seven.”
They would serve as a living memorial for the seven astronauts who died aboard
One tradition particular
each squadron is their “campusology,” or saying that cadets use to preserve the
knowledge of old traditions passed down year after year.
Challenger 17’s campusology
can be recited, without fail, by every single member of the unit—both current
and former. It is:
“On January 28, 1986, seven American astronauts lost
their lives in the tragic explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Challenger
17 was later formed in honor of these brave pioneers. The seven original
Challengers are Gregory B. Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Ronald E. McNair, Ellison
S. Onizuka, Judith A. Resnik, Francis R. Scobee, and Michael J. Smith. Each
Challenger strives to remember the Seven and set the standard for future
The cadets performing their
commemorative tradition as part in Johnson’s Day of Remembrance is the result
of a happy coincidence.
One Johnson team member and
Texas A&M alum sent a picture of his son getting his class ring to another
fellow co-worker, also an alum. The Challenger 17 member in the pic, wearing
full uniform, had it open to where you could see his shirt underneath. On that
shirt was the Challenger 17 emblem.
“Ron (Lee) saw the emblem
and said, ‘Hey, I know somebody who’s related to somebody on Challenger. Can
you tell me about that shirt?’” said Corporal Matthew Gillilan of Johnson’s
Special Ops security team, who was that “somebody.” Gillilan is married to
Janelle, daughter of Ellison and Lorna Onizuka.
That serendipitous connection,
initiated months ago, led to the family making a trip to Texas A&M
University on Jan. 28, 2019, to see the Challenger 17 squadron complete their
annual ceremony, called Echo Taps, with several hundred students present.
Each year, on this day, the
Challengers walk to the center of the quad around 10:30 p.m. After the unit
gets into formation, the buglers perform Echo Taps, with the group holding
their salute throughout. Then, the squadron recites the Challenger campusology
loud enough for those standing by to hear. When the ceremony is over, the group
takes time to answer questions from those passing by about the ceremony or
“I didn’t know what to expect going down there, and I truly didn’t want to
trouble them,” Gillilan said. “I just wanted
to go and watch the ceremony. But they went out of their way, rolled out the
red carpet and made sure we understood exactly what they stand for. And they’ve
been doing this without asking for any fanfare. I told them, ‘Well, you know,
the cat’s out of the bag. Now that I know about it, I’m going to tell everybody
Perhaps Gillilan didn’t tell everybody. But he certainly told a lot
of people—and helped orchestrate Challenger 17’s visit to the center.
Jan. 28, 2019
Onizuka’s family, by birth
and by marriage, took part in the day at Texas A&M, learning about and
participating in the traditions dear to this group of cadets.
After enjoying a meal with
the unit (which wouldn’t let Gillilan and his family pay for it), they all went
back to the dormitory. The Challengers gave the family a tour, showing them the
memorabilia of the shuttle mission and crew members that lined their halls and
sharing the story behind each piece.
Most touching of all for Gillilan,
perhaps, was how these students were with his kids.
“As we’re getting in the hall,
different groups of them would go and have conversations with my children,” Gillilan said. “They made them feel like they were a part of something
huge. I could see it in my youngest son’s face—he was eating it up. I mean,
these are Corps of Cadets members in full class uniform, giving him full
The cadets also bestowed a special gift to the family: a shadowbox filled
with mementoes honoring Onizuka, Challenger and the cadets who serve as a
living reminder of what we lost.
The engraving on the shadowbox reads:
In memory of Ellison S. Onizuka,
Challenger 17, Remember the 7, Jan. 28, 2019.
Flanked by cadets, Janelle and her children, descendants of Challenger crew member Ellison Onizuka, grasp the Challenger 17 unit flag. According to Corps tradition, only the bearer, or past bearers, can hold the flag. However, the squadron bestowed this honor upon the visiting family. Image courtesy of Matthew Gillilan.
“It just kind of brought it home,” Gillilan said. “They kept
telling us repeatedly that us being there—specifically, Janelle—brought this to
life for them.”
Humbling, too, was the knowledge that these men—who were not even born when
the tragedy had occurred—had taken on the immense responsibility of
memorializing the Challenger crew.
“To be able to see these guys do this, and have my children watch them pay
homage to their grandfather, is phenomenal,” Gillilan said. “And I can’t put
it to words—I don’t know how to put it to words.”
Gillilan and the Johnson team,
instead, tried putting their thanks into action. After the beautiful Echo Taps
performance among the trees in the Astronaut Tree Grove and Day of Remembrance
observance, the squadron toured Johnson with Lorna, Janelle and Onizuka’s grandchildren,
where they saw human space exploration brought to life in the renowned Mission
Control Center and Space Vehicle Mockup Facility.
There, the Corps of Cadets witnessed spaceflight as a living, breathing
thing, with each team member’s contributions building momentum toward a future
among the stars.
It was an unforgettable day for a group of cadets whose mission is, even
now, to always remember.
Catherine Ragin Williams
NASA Johnson Space Center
Enjoy photos from the squadron's tour of Johnson, below.