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AMERICAN ALBUM : As the Space Mirror turns, focus is on funds : Amid structural problems at the Astronauts Memorial, a probe of its financing is launched.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s called Space Mirror, a massive wall of black granite that turns and tilts its face to the central Florida skies in tribute to the 15 Americans killed while serving in the nation’s space program.

Yet even before Vice President Dan Quayle dedicated the Astronauts Memorial in a ceremony here in May, structural and mechanical problems had surfaced that were reminiscent of the kind of glitches that have plagued NASA’s space shuttle program in recent years.

First, cracks appeared in the stone where the names of the fallen astronauts are carved. Those granite panels are to be replaced, at a cost of $12,000. Soon after that, sections of the walkway were cordoned off while discolored grouting was replaced.

Then, two weeks ago, the entire monument was declared a safety hazard and closed to visitors. A popping noise in the gears that rotate the 50-by-40-foot wall of polished Indian granite could mean that the mirror’s pitch was out of sync, engineers said. The monument was reopened last Saturday.

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Now, even bigger troubles may lie ahead.

Florida state Rep. Vernon Peeples has launched an investigation into a loan guarantee deal between the Astronauts Memorial Foundation, the nonprofit citizens group that raised $6.2 million to pay for the monument, and a private Houston firm that is marketing “Space Shots” trading cards. The firm, Space Ventures Inc., is headed by Edward White III, whose father, Edward White II, died with two fellow Apollo crew members in a launch pad fire in January, 1967.

In exchange for guaranteeing a $160,000 bank loan to Space Ventures, the foundation is to receive 25% of the profits from sales of the trading cards.

Asked if he suspected wrongdoing, Peeples, chairman of the Florida House Transportation Committee, replied: “Do I think they’ve stolen any money? No. Do I think there’s been misuse of money? Yes.”

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Other lawmakers have also said they are more concerned about the appearance of wrongdoing than any actual malfeasance. Ben Everidge, who was president of the foundation when the deal was made, is now a consultant to Space Ventures and will profit from the sales. David E. Walsh, the foundation treasurer and a board member, is a senior vice president of SunBank, which made the loan to Space Ventures.

Said Peeples: “I haven’t been satisfied with the way it was set up in beginning.” He said he has ordered his staff to begin an audit of the foundation’s books.

Randy Berridge, another member of the foundation’s board of directors, defended the deal with Space Ventures as “a very viable funding source” that will help the foundation build a $14-million education center at the space center. “It looks like (the agreement) will generate over $500,000 for us by end of this year,” he said. Despite questions about money and costly repair problems, Space Mirror is proving to be a popular attraction at the Kennedy Space Center’s Spaceport USA, a sprawling exhibition of spent rockets, command module mock-ups, film shows and snack bars just down the road from NASA’s launching complex. The privately operated Spaceport USA has been growing in popularity as an extra-day side trip for many tourists whose first stop is Disney World, some 50 miles to the west. Spaceport last year had 3.2 million visitors, according to marketing director George Meguiar. Admission is free.

The memorial honors the three astronauts who died in the Apollo fire, the seven who perished in the 1986 Challenger explosion and five others who were killed in air crashes while in training or on NASA business.

When it is working, Space Mirror slowly tracks the sun so that the names of astronaut Virgil I. (Gus) Grissom, Sharon Christa McAuliffe and the others--stencil-cut through the granite and filled with plastic--are always illuminated from behind. Viewed from the front, the monument reflects the sky and the names seem to float in the heavens.

Space Mirror was designed by the San Francisco architectural firm Holt, Hinshaw, Pfau & Jones and paid for through the sale of more than 400,500 commemorative license plates that honor the seven Challenger crew members.

Alan C. Helman, the Orlando, Fla., architect who first proposed the idea of a memorial and came up with the license-plate scheme, said that the plastic filling in the letters of the names may have expanded and caused the granite to crack. Replacement panels, on hand for just such an emergency, are being prepared, he said. “We anticipated problems because life is that way,” he said. “Anything can happen.”

Space Mirror, which President Bush has designated a national memorial, is destined to become one of the world’s best known monuments, Helman said. “It was a 5 1/2-year effort to get it built,” he said, “but it was worth it. Its importance is in what it represents. And it works.”

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