For a moment, there was nothing but the rumble-thump of Navy drums, a low, steady sound from behind the trees. Then six white horses slowly wound into view, and a Navy honor guard inched up the hill, carrying the casket of Challenger pilot Michael J. Smith to a shady spot in Arlington National Cemetery.
Several hundred relatives, colleagues and friends clustered on the grass, their eyes on the flag-draped casket and the gleaming granite headstone: "Michael John Smith, Captain, United States Navy, April 30, 1945-January 28, 1986, Pilot of Space Shuttle Challenger."
Above the words, etched into the stone, was the astronaut's insignia -- a pair of spread wings, an anchor and a shooting star.
Smith was buried with full military honors yesterday, three months and five days after Challenger exploded and killed its crew of seven. The astronauts' remains were recovered from the ocean floor about 18 miles offshore from Cape Canaveral and flown to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware last week for funeral preparations.
Teacher Christa McAuliffe was buried last week in New Hampshire; Ronald E. McNair, Gregory B. Jarvis, Judith A. Resnik and Ellison S. Onizuka will be buried later in separate private ceremonies. Mission commander Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, a retired Air Force major, will be buried in Arlington Cemetery on May 19.
Smith, who would have turned 41 last Wednesday, was a Navy aviator who took his first flights at age 15 in a single-engine plane over the coastline of Beaufort, N.C. A graduate of the Naval Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., he had logged more than 4,000 hours in 28 types of aircraft. He was promoted posthumously from commander to captain.
A few months before Challenger's launch, Smith told an interviewer: "Whenever I was conscious of what I wanted to do, I wanted to fly. I can never remember anything else I wanted to do but flying. To tell you the truth, it's been wonderful. I could not ask to have a better career than I've had. Flying's been fun."
"Mike Smith had a clear vision of life and where it was going to lead," Cmdr. Richard H. Purnell, an Annapolis classmate of Smith's, said in a service in Fort Myer's Post Chapel.
"We lost him long before we could afford his loss," Purnell said. "Mike would insist that the quest, above all else, must go on."
After the service, the horse-drawn caisson moved slowly through the cemetery to section 7A, Smith's friends and relatives walking behind -- his wife, Jane; his children, Scott, 17, Alison, 14, and Erin, 8; his brothers Patrick and Tony and his sister Ellen and their spouses.
Tourists gathered at the edges of the gravesite near the Tomb of the Unknowns, watching as members of the Navy Ceremonial Guard lifted the flag from the casket and pulled it taut.
"Oh, God, we fall the hardest when we aim so very high," said Chaplain Paul J. Moore. "In Thy hands, oh Lord, we pray, take Michael, Gregory, Francis and Christa, also Ronald, Ellison and Judith into the realm of the heavenly vista."
A firing party snapped the silence with a three-round salute; a bugler, standing alone, sounded taps, and the flag over Smith's casket moved a little in the breeze.
Then, as the band played the Naval Academy Alma Mater, the honor guard folded the flag into a triangle. Vice Adm. Robert E. Kirksey, director of the Navy's Space Command and Control office, gave the flag to Jane Smith.
As the family walked back down the hill, Alison Smith buried her face in her hands, sobbing. The band, quiet except for the roll of a single drum, left the hillside, and the crowd cleared quickly. Only a handful of tourists stayed, watching from behind a rope as workers lowered the casket into the ground.