Challenger anniversary evokes painful memories, hopeful
Challenger explodes January 28, 1986
January 28, 2000
Web posted at: 1:16 p.m. EST (1816 GMT)
CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee (CNN) -- I was fast asleep when the
Challenger exploded. It was almost high noon, but I had
turned in only about three hours before.
I had spent the night in a citrus grove in Polk County,
Florida. I was a general assignment reporter for a TV station
in Tampa, and we were up all night providing viewers constant
updates on the record freeze. The fate of the citrus crop is
big news in that part of the world.
We had huddled near smudge pots and more modern kerosene
heaters that dotted the grove in neat rows beside the trees.
But they did little to ease our chill, and I suspect, they
were equally futile in protecting the valuable fruit. As I
think back on it, seeing central Florida that clear, cold
night from low Earth orbit would have been an eerie,
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When the call came from the assignment desk, I was in a deep
sleep, so it took me some time to comprehend what I had just
been told: "You are not going to believe this, but the
shuttle has blown up."
'An implausibly blue sky'
I turned on the TV and dressed quickly. My assignment: to
gather local reaction to the tragedy. When I walked outside,
I looked up at an implausibly blue sky, the kind of sky you
only get when high pressure and low temperatures intersect.
Then I saw it. At first, I thought it was a cloud. But it was
such an odd shape. Kind of like a big "Y". It was, in fact,
the awful scar that loomed off the coast of Cape Canaveral,
more than 150 miles away. It seemed to be asking us all a
question which, to this day, offers no easy answers: "Why?"
As you know, the truth is painful and sad. NASA managers were
determined to prove their shuttle fleet was truly
"operational," even commercially viable. If their dreams had
become reality, 1986 would have been the busiest year in the
history of the space transportation system.
Fifteen flights were scheduled over 11 months. One was
supposed to be the first mission to launch from the new
shuttle facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Nine communications satellites, three classified payloads for
the Pentagon and two major unmanned probes were to be carried
into space in the payload bay of orbiters that year.
NASA managers were trying to live up to years of their own
unrealistic expectations, fanciful claims, pure science-
fiction, and outright lies.
Warnings of Utah engineers ignored
So when they discounted and discarded the firm "no-go"
admonitions of engineers at the Thiokol plant in Utah where
the solid rocket boosters are made, mission managers were
lying to themselves.
They, too, were asleep on that bitter morning when the world
witnessed a nightmare.
All of this was tumbling through my head as I traveled up the
road to Chattanooga to meet June Scobee Rodgers. I wondered
if, after 14 years, she was bitter, or angry, or sad.
The answer is "none of the above." With the "Y" still hanging
in the sky, she was telling then Vice President George Bush
and then Senator John Glenn that her husband, Challenger
Commander Dick Scobee, would not have wanted the country to
take the fork in the road that would bring manned space
exploration to an end.
But it went beyond lip service. "I couldn't NOT help to
continue that mission. I couldn't NOT do my part," June told
Sometime later, as she and the other surviving family members
met in her living room, it became clear they HAD to do
"Each of us wanted to do our part to see that space
exploration continued - that shuttle flights went on and
their mission in particular lived," says June.
Birth of Challenger Learning Centers
And so the Challenger Learning Centers were born. Middle
school students come to these places to role-play as
astronauts and flight controllers, learning about math,
science and teamwork in a way that doesn't seem like
learning. Visit one sometime and you will marvel at the
intensity, concentration and utter joy the children display
as they accomplish their mission.
There are now 38 of these magical places, and new centers are
opening at a rate of one a month.
Clearly, this has helped June Scobee Rodgers cope with her
loss. Happily remarried, to former Army General Don Rodgers,
she has journeyed down a tough road to some happiness and
But, as she confided, "there is always that morning when you
wake up, on the 28th, where you think about that tremendous
loss. I am so blessed, though, because I have had a beautiful
life since then ... and I have been given a chance to love
"Those are hard days and my children and I always talk to
each other, and I often talk to the other families. But then
we go on and we celebrate how far we have come and we often
have a great celebration, a ribbon cutting (at a) new
learning center that is opening, and we see that they lived
in truth and they have given us so much."
On January 28th, 2000, fourteen years after her husband and
the other 6 crewmembers of STS-51-L perished, June Scobee
Rodgers will travel to Texas to cut the ribbon on yet another
Challenger Learning Center.
We can only hope the lessons learned on that day are never
Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien is a regular columnist for CNN.com.
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