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“I often say that we were tremendously excited, the whole bunch of us were tremendously excited that we were kind of on this major interstate highway moving toward the heavens,” says June Scobee Rodgers, remembering Jan. 28, 1986, the day her husband, Cmdr. Dick Scobee, boarded the Challenger space shuttle.
“And then this terrible, numbing accident happened,” she says. “And he just kept on going toward heaven. And he left me dangling at the edge of that highway.”
Thirty years later, memories of the launch still bring Scobee Rodgers to tears. The seasoned NASA wife stood alongside civilian Steven McAuliffe, whose wife, Christa McAuliffe, was participating in the mission as the first teacher in space. They both had their children by their sides.
“The most memorable for me, and I’ve never spoken about it, but now that he’s so much older I think I can,” says Scobee Rodgers. “[Their son] Scott McAuliffe sat at the window with his nose against that window, waiting for the launch. And he wouldn’t move. That little boy stood there, glued.”
But within 73 seconds of takeoff, Scobee Rodgers and Steven McAuliffe — and the rest of America — could plainly see that something had gone terribly wrong. The shuttle exploded into two ghastly smoke streams in the air, and the families watching in shock in Cape Canaveral, Fla., tried to tell each other that perhaps their loved ones had survived. But within an hour, it was official: No one in the Challenger Seven was alive.
Scobee Rodgers had met her husband when she was a teenager in San Antonio, Texas. He ignored all the girls at a church dance but her. “He walked straight to me, put out his hand and said, ‘Hi, I’m Dick Scobee.’ And my life changed forever after that moment,” she glows.
They married as soon as she graduated from high school, at the little church where they had met. Scobee had wanted to be a pilot since childhood, a dream Scobee Rodgers was totally on board with.
Growing up, Scobee hung so many model airplanes on the ceiling of his room that those who entered bumped their heads on them. He had a small toy car with wings that looked like an airplane that he rode so often that the wheels fell off. After that, Scobee Rodgers says, “His dad took it and hung it in a cherry tree. And then he could swing in it. He was already, at 3 years old, reaching for the stars in that little swing in their backyard. And from that young, young age, he wanted to be a pilot.”
As Scobee rose through the ranks of the Air Force and test pilot programs, he began to set his sights on NASA. Scobee Rodgers recalls the rigorous selection process for the astronaut program, which ended with a call from NASA at the crack of dawn. She remembers Scobee jumping up and saluting the phone when he realized who was on the other end. The voice said, “Well, do you still want to be an astronaut? Do you still want to come to Houston?”
“And he looked at me and I said, ‘Of course you do!’ she laughs. “So he hung up and we jumped up and down on the bed like we were 5 years old. He was over the moon.”
Scobee participated in various NASA missions before he was chosen to command the Challenger. The flight’s goal was to study Halley’s comet, but national attention on the crew largely focused on Christa McAuliffe, who had been selected out of tens of thousands to be the first teacher in space. By the time of their mission, the team was one big family.
“We spent a lot of time together, Scobee Rodgers says. “Because Dick was a real team player, he kept bringing us all together for dinners, for meals, for gathering for sports. We’d go out and play baseball. As a group, we’d go on picnics. We did things together all the time. And so we all knew each other quite well.”
In the wake of the tragedy, the family members of the Challenger crew decided to start educational centers to teach kids about space. Today there are over 40 Challenger Center locations around the globe where students can participate in simulated missions involving flying to the moon, intercepting a comet and visiting Mars.
The first center opened in August 1988. “Everyone was talking about how they died,” explains Scobee Rodgers, who still sits on the organization’s board of directors. “We wanted the world to know how they lived — and for what they were willing to risk their lives.”