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Remembering Challenger Commander Dick Scobee (Part 2: Sky Challenger)

My father worked on the space shuttle fuel tank during the early stages of the shuttle program, and I, myself, am a NASA space enthusiast.

Astronaut Candidate Portrait, 1978

Astronaut Candidate Portrait, 1978

See The Following Link For Part 1 of This Story

The Selection and NASA Life

With the blessings of his wife and both of his children, Dick Scobee mailed in his application to NASA's new space shuttle program. A call came a few weeks thereafter, inviting him to Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio for a medical exam and other tests. Another call followed, summoning him to Houston to be interviewed by a panel. As part of his assignment, Dick was also asked to write a few sentences as to why he wanted to be an astronaut. He penned the following proposal:

Why do I want to become an astronaut? Probably my most compelling reason for wanting to become an astronaut are a desire to extend and use the engineering and test pilot experience I've gained, to hopefully aid in the success of the space program, and for my own satisfaction in realizing a very longstanding personal ambition. I thoroughly enjoy being a test pilot and performing flight-related tasks, and the astronaut program is, to me, a logical extension of that function into new frontiers.

He went onto emphasize his belief in manned space exploration as a means of satisfying a "basic need of mankind to explore and probe the unknown." It was his desire to simply "be an integral part of that exploration."

NASA official, George Abbey, soon phoned Dick Scobee with an exciting question: "Are you still interested in the job at NASA?"

Dick was one of 35 chosen from more than 8,000 applicants. News quickly spread around Edwards Air Force Base where he worked. He was met with mostly genuine congratulations, though a few of his colleagues seemed surprised or told him he was lucky. Still, nothing dampened his spirits.

Dick's family was especially delighted, and drove two cars from California to Houston that summer in 1978 and bought a modest Texas-style house in Clear Lake City, a suburb of Houston adjacent to the Johnson Space Center that has long been home to many NASA astronauts during their careers in the space program.

Dick Scobee's astronaut class was the first selected by NASA in over a decade. This class was not only the first to be selected for the space shuttle program, but also included the first women and minorities. Several would go onto become household names, with perhaps the most famous of all being Sally Ride, First American Woman In Space. They named themselves the "Thirty-Five New Guys," or the "TFNG" for short.

The "35 New Guys" of NASA. Dick Scobee appears in a commanding position front and center, in between pioneering women Sally Ride and Rhea Seddon.

The "35 New Guys" of NASA. Dick Scobee appears in a commanding position front and center, in between pioneering women Sally Ride and Rhea Seddon.

They were a close-knit group, and immediately bonded during their first year of astronaut training. They were divided into two groups -- a red team and a blue team -- for classroom training, flight training, and other activities. Dick Scobee was designated leader of the blue team. All 35 trainees wore t-shirts in their team colors with a "TFNG" symbol on the front designed by classmate (and later Challenger crewmate) Judy Resnik. The emblem depicted the orbiter in space with the cargo bay open and 35 cartoon figures working and hanging all over the vehicle.

Meanwhile, flying was quickly becoming a family affair in the Scobee household. Dick, along with a fellow astronaut, bought an experimental aircraft called a Starduster II. He and June regularly visited the hangar so that he could work on the engine while his wife cleaned and polished the exterior. Dick taught her the basics of flying and aerobatics. Their son, Rich, who had been building a life-sized Burt Rutan plane with his father prior to the move to NASA, also caught the flying bug, as he expressed interest in not only getting a pilots' license, but also joining an aerobatics competition team. He went onto become quite an expert, winning trophies regularly. Daughter Kathie never took to flying quite like her parents and brother, and instead elected to devote her energies to creative writing with aspirations to study journalism in college.

June Scobee, during this time, was wrapped up in education aspirations of her own. Having realized her lifelong dream of becoming a teacher, she was now working toward her PhD in education. After one year, however, she began to wonder if her attempts to balance education with family life were a mistake. Sensing she was failing as a wife and mother, she began a letter of resignation to her major professor at Texas A&M University where she was attending. Son Rich, however, would hear nothing of it. He presented her with a present wrapped in brown paper and string. She opened it to find a long block of polished wood and turned it over to find a name plate bearing the inscription, "Dr. June Scobee." "You can't quit now because it won't come true," he said. The rest of the family had been saving the gift for when she graduated (which, after the prodding from her devoted husband and children, took place in May of 1983).

As Dick and his classmates completed their first year of astronaut training, the first flight of the space shuttle, designated as STS-1, took place April of 1981. It was commanded by John Young with Bob Crippen as his pilot. Dick and most of his class of 35 watched from the Cape Canaveral launch site. According to Sally Ride, who had not yet launched into history, they were more than mere spectators, however. They had a special assignment as part of the STS-1 "Chase Team." Ride recalled the experience in a NASA Oral History report in 2002:

"Everybody was part of the chase crew on STS-1!" she said. "Yes, I was with Dick Scobee. He and I were paired in a T-38 chasing at the Cape. If STS-1 had come back to land at the Cape on RTLS [Return to Launch Site], we would have been one of the chase planes following them in."

Instead of following STS-1 down the runway at Kennedy Space Center, they watched the shuttle fly off the pad from about 18,000 feet in the air in their T-38. Dick later described it as a "very interesting view," but admitted to preferring the riveting sensations of observing from the ground.

Dick Scobee flying a T-38 in preparation for Challenger Mission STS-41C

Dick Scobee flying a T-38 in preparation for Challenger Mission STS-41C

Shuttle Carrier Abroad, Challenger To The Sky

In 1982, Dick trained to fly the NASA 747 Shuttle Charrier Aircraft (SCA) that would ferry the orbiter cross-country, from Edwards Air Force Base to Kennedy Space Center.

In May of the following year, Dick and others flew the SCA with the NASA prototype shuttle Enterprise on top. They made trips across country, as well as to Europe, which included the Paris Air show.

"I actually flew the plane around the periphery of Paris," he reminisced to his wife at a French cafe following his assignment. "We did it. It was unbelieveable! We took the plane over the city circling around the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. The view was spectacular! What an amazing opportunity!"

When June inquired as to whether it occurred to him and the crew that they were making history, Dick, as usual, responded as a humble but consummate professional: "No, I just didn't want to screw up," he said. "The responsibility was demanding. All I could do was focus on the flight pattern."

It definitely occurred to those watching down below. Countless people in shops and cafes spoke at great lengths, with one hand over the other to gesture the orbiter riding piggyback on the SCA, some also gesturing toward the heavens with their arms outstretched.

Orbiter prototype Enterprise piggybacked atop the SCA for the Paris Air Show, 1983. Dick Scobee was one of the pilots flying the SCA around the periphery of Paris.

Orbiter prototype Enterprise piggybacked atop the SCA for the Paris Air Show, 1983. Dick Scobee was one of the pilots flying the SCA around the periphery of Paris.

June 18, 1983: Dick Scobee is taking to news anchor Jane Pauley about Sally Ride and STS-7, the 2nd flight of Challenger. He also spoke briefly of his own NASA career, emphasizing that part of the apprehension associated with a space mission is not only the risks involved but also not wanting to fail. "You don't want to fail yourself or the program or anything else," he said.

These types of assignments would become somewhat commonplace for the little boy from Auburn, Washington whose aeronautical dreams began playing on an airplane-shaped swing hanging from a cherry tree in his family's backyard. He was now considered the best of the 15 pilots from NASA's 1978 intake. Former astronauts Alan Bean and John Young, as well as Director of Flight Operations George Abbey, saw a rare talent in Dick Scobee despite not being the youngest or of a fighter jock pedigree.

NASA's second space orbiter, Challenger, arrived at Kennedy Space Center in July of 1982. Dick served as co-pilot on the SCA that delivered her. He also served as Capsule Communicator (CAPCOM) during the launch of her maiden voyage, STS-6, in April of 1983.

His chance to fly the shuttle came in April of 1984. He would be the pilot of Challenger, second in command to Bob Crippen, the aforementioned first pilot of the space shuttle, now commanding his second flight.

The purpose of the mission was to rendezvous in orbit with the Solar Max satellite. It was to be the first direct ascent trajectory into orbit for a shuttle mission. It was a very important mission, as it involved leaving the orbiter to perform a spacewalk in the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) to repair the satellite. Mission specialist George "Pinky" Nelson was to be the spacewalker.

As the 13th flight of the shuttle, the mission was originally designated as STS-13. NASA, however, changed the numbering system, presumably out of superstitions surrounding the number plus the memory of the near-disastrous Apollo 13 mission. The flight would become STS-41C. The first number stood for the last digit of the fiscal year, the second for the launch site (1 for KSC in Florida, 2 for Vandenburg Air Force Base in California, which was never used), and the letter designating the planned launch order (although they seldom flew in their initially planned order).

The crew could have cared less about the number, however. To show they were not intimidated or superstitious, they created an alternate crew patch for their mission depicting a black cat with the number 13 superimposed over its body. They also distinguished themselves with t-shirts depicting "Men at Work" and hard hats to represent their satellite repair assignment.

STS-41C was a busy mission, the most complex and challenging ever flown as of that date. Their extensive checklist included the following:

1. Deploying the Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF), a 12-sided cylinder of about 30 feet long that carried 57 experiments by researchers in 8 countries. It would be retrieved on a later flight.

2. The first and foremost objective of capturing, repairing, and re-deploying the malfunctioning Solar Max satellite that was launched in 1980.

3. Administering a student experiment with honeybees to see how they make honeycomb cells in a microgravity environment.

The capturing of the Solar Max proved to be such a chore that it appeared for a while as though the crew had not escaped the #13 curse, even though they were ultimately the 11th to launch. Pinky Nelson flew the MMU out to the satellite and attempted to grasp it as planned, but after three attempts, the Solar Max began tumbling on multiple axes. Disappointed and anxious, Commander Crippen called off the effort.

NASA's Goddard Space Center took control of Solar Max during the night by sending commands to stabilize the tumbling into a slow, regular spin. With the spacewalk effort proven futile, Dick, along with Commander Crippen, maneuvered Challenger back to the Solar Max so that fellow mission specialist TJ Hart could grapple it with the shuttle's robotic arm and place it on a cradle in the payload bay. Pinky Nelson, along with third mission specialist Jim "Ox" van Hoften then repaired the broken satellite and deployed it back into orbit. Still a mechanic at heart, Dick insisted that the crew wear signs bearing the words, "Ace Satellite Repair Co." for a photo opportunity. They also documented parts of their journey with a big IMAX camera to help create the IMAX film, "The Dream is Alive."

After seven days, the crew landed at Edwards Air Force Base, rather than KSC as originally planned, because of bad weather.

Once home in Houston, Dick opted to surpass the barrage of reporters gathered outside of his house and slip away with June to their favorite restaurant on the lake; he wanted her to be the first to know about his adventure. He spoke of eating and sleeping in zero-gravity, watching the honey bees, and the metallic noises from inside the orbiter. And though his feet by now were firmly on the ground, his mind was -- at least partially -- still among the stars. The couple took a selfie (before selfies were a thing) to celebrate the occasion. Dick, thinking he was still in space, simply let go of the camera afterward instead of setting it down. He also kept tucking his napkin underneath his dinner plate, afraid that it might float away.

Though his wife was mesmerized by his enthusiasm, she remained curious about one thing: was Dick at all angered when President Reagan called to the crew to congratulate them and mentioned everyone's name but his? Dick insisted that he was not. "What was important was the mission," he said, "we got the job done! That's all that mattered. We had a great mission."

The post-flight press conference for STS-41C with video footage of mission highlights. In the beginning, Dick Scobee likens early stages of the launch to being on a "rough railroad track," perhaps as a nod to his railroad engineer father.

What Dick Scobee had accomplished was any pilot's dream. His biggest accomplishment, however, remained his family. When his daughter Kathie graduated from college that summer, her university's president invited Dick to give the commencement speech. Although he had never sought out speaking engagements, his soft heart for his daughter prompted him to make an exception. Kathie had graduated with a degree in English and journalism and Dick was impressed by her "tremendous talent" for writing, and equally encouraging towards the endeavors of his son Rich, a budding pilot himself now in his second year at the Air Force Academy. "Son, you are a great pilot," he told him. "Your instincts are good. You're already a better pilot than I'll ever be."

Comments

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on June 30, 2020:

Perhaps that airplane-like swing that Dick Scobee played upon as a child influenced his later life as a pilot and astronaut. Your article about him is fascinating.

Ehren E Grunewald (author) from New Orleans / NC on April 05, 2020:

@Eurofile: Thank you so much! It was quite a time... :)

Liz Westwood from UK on April 05, 2020:

This is an interesting and well-written historical account of a significant time in space exploration.