25 years after Challenger—inspiring the future of space science


You know the story of the Challenger space shuttle disaster—the engineers' warnings that were ignored, the lives lost, and the lives forever altered. But, on the 25th anniversary of the tragedy, the families those astronauts left behind are trying to make it clear that Challenger was more than just a single, traumatic day. Instead, for people like June Scobee Rodgers—widow of Challenger Commander Dick Scobee—the years since the Challenger space shuttle broke apart have proven that good things can come out of terrible events.

In an essay he posted in 2009, Miles O'Brien describes meeting Scobee Rodgers, and how she turned her loss into a triumph.

As I traveled up the road to Chattanooga to meet June Scobee Rodgers nine years ago … I wondered if, after all these 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 me.

Sometime later, as she and the other surviving family members met in her living room, it became clear they HAD to do SOMETHING.

"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.

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, the concentration and the utter joy these children display as they accomplish their mission. There are now about 50 of these magical places – and millions of kids have tasted the excitement of saving the space station.

Starting at 1:30 Eastern today, Miles O'Brien will be hosting a live webcast from the Challenger Learning Center in Houston. You'll see interviews with NASA flight directors, astronauts, and June Scobee Rodgers. But, more importantly, you'll also meet some of the kids who are being inspired by the legacy of seven people who died 25 years ago. One of the highlights of the webcast: Joining a group of middle school students inside Houston's shuttle simulator.

Sometime this year, NASA will launch its last space shuttle mission. But, as long as the Challenger Learning Centers are around, there will always be kids learning about space, and working to go there, someday.

UPDATE: Watch the webcast right here, starting at 12:30 Central/1:30 Eastern