Even before he could drive a car, Michael Smith wanted to fly.
The Beaufort native, who grew up a few miles down the road from a small local airport that now bears his name, qualified for his pilot's license a few days before turning 16. Twenty-four years later, he was the pilot on the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle mission that killed all seven astronauts aboard.
Smith's name still resonates 25 years later in the coastal town he called home: it's on a memorial near the waterfront, on the airport where he learned to fly as a teenager and in a part of Beaufort Elementary School packed with exhibits about his life and the space program.
"So many people here in Beaufort knew Michael Smith," said Vicki Fritz, principal of the school, which opened the Michael J. Smith Air and Space Mini-Museum last year on the 24th anniversary of the tragedy.
Inside, murals depict a midnight-blue night sky dotted with stars. Memorabilia ranges from a tire that was on the space shuttle that followed the Challenger to mementoes from a career that included a stint as a naval aviator in the Vietnam War.