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Remembering Challenger Commander Dick Scobee (Part 1: From "Swift Water" to Starlifters)

Updated on April 4, 2020
skydancer profile image

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.

Introduction

I have been a NASA spaceflight enthusiast for years now. My favorite of the space orbiters during the shuttle program was always Challenger, and therefore the loss of that ship and its amazing crew is an event close to heart. Like most, I knew all about Christa McAuliffe, who was the star of that mission as the "Teacher In Space." However, when my curiosity led me to scour the internet for information about the other crew members, they seemed to only be mentioned in passing if they were spoken of in any detail at all.

Indeed, a common opinion shared between the full-fledged astronauts of NASA was that they were perfectly simple, ordinary people doing an extraordinary job. Most, therefore, preferred a quiet life, away from the spotlight.

When one recalls President Reagan speaking the words, "The crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger honors by the manner in which they lived their lives," you can't help but wonder what kind of lives they really lived.

In researching commander Dick Scobee and reading the memoirs of his wife, June Scobee Rodgers, I have found he is probably one of the finest men to grace the halls of the NASA astronaut office, and he quickly became a personal hero of mine.

Early Life

Francis Richard ("Dick") Scobee was born May 19, 1939 in the heart of the Cascades, in Cle Elum, Washington. His father, Francis William ("Frank") Scobee was an engineer and trainmaster for the Northern Pacific Railroad and he and his wife Edlynn ("Eddie") raised Dick and his younger brother Jim in nearby Auburn, a small railroad town outside of Seattle.

It was a comfortable and close-knit upbringing. The Scobee's lived in a modest two-story wood-framed house on Fourth Street. Young Dick and his father often went fishing on the nearby Green River.

His devotion to his family was genuine. When he got his first job, he spent his very first paycheck on presents for his mother and brother.

High school days were consumed by playing football and track, working in the fields picking beans to buy school clothes (and later as a bag boy at the Safeway grocery store), and hanging out with friends at the Rainbow Cafe, a favorite local haunt. A nearly-straight-A student, Dick took his education seriously as well.

The name of Scobee's hometown, Cle Elum, means "swift water" in the language of the Kittitas indian tribe.

His biggest passion, however, was aviation and the world of flight. It was a fascination he displayed almost as soon as he could talk. One of his first words, according to his family, was "airplane," and he asked his mother for a wind-up toy version he saw in a Sears-Roebuck catalog when he was just a toddler.

When Dick was three, his aunt Tene gifted him a toy riding plane with pedals - much like a tricycle - for Christmas. It instantly became his favorite toy, which he rode all around the family property until the wheels wore out. His father thereafter made it into a swing by hanging it from a cherry tree in their backyard, giving him an even stronger feeling of euphoria that never diminished. Airplanes, coupled with a dream of flying the real thing, remained his strongest motivation through his high school years, often multi-tasking during class time, as he sketched airplanes on his notebook paper while studying. Building model airplanes of wood or plastic was more than a hobby. Miniature Spitfires, P-38's, and numerous other classes of aircraft hung from his bedroom ceiling. They were literally his pride and his labor of love. One aunt recalled that despite his normally quiet and considerate nature, if you touched one, "he had a fit."

Those who knew the youth and adolescent Dick Scobee tend to echo two sentiments. The first was that he was good, but never outstanding in all he did. The second was perseverance, which by all accounts was probably his most marked trait throughout his life.

According to his high school athletic coach, Dick Scobee was "not outstanding in any way except maybe his attitude, which was real great," he said. "He did not excel in athletics; he was kind of a big, slow kid. It would have been very easy to quit, but he never gave up."

His teachers remembered him similarly, as a good, "but not brilliant" student, who worked very hard.

His high school friends, who described him as a late bloomer socially (he never dated during his school years), never saw him as having any notable ambition to speak of, and assumed he would follow his father into the railroad business.

Though professional athletics or a life dedicated to academia may not have been his calling, Dick Scobee's subsequent accomplishments defy the perception that he was a young man of mediocre talent. The reserved airman-to-be also proved to have been far more ambitious than his peers had initially believed. His perseverance, nonetheless, remained a constant.

Dick Scobee (left) and his younger brother, Jim.
Dick Scobee (left) and his younger brother, Jim.

College, Air Force, and Married Life

Dick Scobee's real, if not widely known, ambition was to attend a military academy after high school. His high school counselor told him, however, that he did not have what it took to apply to an academy, meaning that he did not know a senator who could personally recommend him. He took a job at Boeing Air Field until he could enlist in the Air Force. With a high score on the entrance exam, Dick was asked to go into intelligence, but requested to be assigned closer to the airplanes, and began his Air Force career as an airplane mechanic. He was stationed at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio.

While in San Antonio, the nineteen-year-old Dick met Virgina "June" Kent, a sixteen-year-old high school senior, at a hayride event at the Mayfield Baptist Church, of which Kent and family were members. June, it turned out, had a lifelong interest in airplanes, rockets and space science, and the two bonded immediately. They were married at the church the following year. During their first Christmas together, they learned of Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier.

Both had a lifelong dream of going to college, and, despite being struggling newlyweds, decided to invest whatever resources they could into making that happen. They enrolled at the local community college, and Dick - seeking a more secure financial future for his family - eventually doubled up on his course work in night school, worked weekends, and then the night shift with the Air Force so that he could attend school full time during the day and take the courses not offered at night.

That January in 1961, the couple welcomed their first child, a daughter, Kathie Renee.

Later that year, the United States became involved in the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and Dick became more and more immersed in his military duties. He was promoted to Sergeant First Class.

Dick and June Scobee, married at Mayfield Baptist Church in San Antonio
Dick and June Scobee, married at Mayfield Baptist Church in San Antonio | Source

During this time, President Kennedy made his famed announcement proposing the plan to land a man on the moon. Dick also watched the historic first space flights of Alan Shepard and John Glenn, and particularly admired Glenn's "serious candor."

Ever the family man, Dick continued to seek out ways to improve the livelihood of his family, but was still not ready to give up on his dream of flying. He considered two Air Force training programs, the first being Officer Candidate School (OCS), in which he would go through training and then be commissioned as an officer. The second, the Airman's Education and Commissioning Program & Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT), would send him to a university to study, and upon graduation in a technical field, then send him for officer's training and commissioning.

The U.S. was then in turmoil on the international front. The nation faced major cold war with the Soviet Union, who were on record as having increased their support for Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba. President Kennedy made a major speech regarding Cuba, and announced that all military jobs were frozen. No one was allowed to retire after serving twenty years or after their 4-year commitments.

The announcement solidified Dick's final decision. Realizing that he was most likely in for a long career in the Air Force, he opted for and was selected for the AFIT program and was assigned to study at University of Arizona in his first choice of major, which was aeronautical engineering.

Dick received a promotion to sergeant the following summer. He worked extra diligently in his studies, sometimes sleeping on the living room sofa - so as not to disturb the rest of the family - with an alarm set for the middle of the night for extra hours of studying.

In the spring of 1964, Dick and June added to their family with the birth of a son, Richard William.

Dick graduated from college the following year. By this point, he held out very little hope that he would ever get to fly airplanes, but was happy to resign himself to the role of Airplane Maintenance Officer.

Third from left, in front of the X-24B, the prototype for the Space Shuttle.
Third from left, in front of the X-24B, the prototype for the Space Shuttle. | Source

Vietnam And NASA's Announcement

During officer training school, Dick learned that the Air Force needed pilots, and he qualified to go to flight training at Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Georgia.

He moved to Georgia and quickly advanced through the series of pilot instructors and aircraft, which included the T-34, T-37, and T-38, and graduated from pilot training in 1966 near the top of his class. This gave him a choice of planes to fly which included both fighter planes and cargo jets. Dick decided to fly a newer aircraft, a C-141 jet called the Starlifter. He moved once again with his family to Oklahoma for training, and then to an assignment at Charleston Air Force Base. There, he and June bought their first house in Charleston, and Dick flew around the world on C-141 cargo missions.

A year-long assignment in Vietnam was soon to follow. Dick was to fly the C-7 Caribou, a short take-off and landing aircraft.

In Vietnam, Dick was stationed in Vung Tau, in the 535th tactical airlift squadron. His performance earned him a promotion to the title of Captain, as well as such decorations as the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal, among others.

During Christmas, Dick and his crew painted the nose of their plane to resemble Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and flew across country delivering packages and food to troops in remote areas. Though his risking of his life to protect his squadron mates with his masterful handling of the unwieldy Caribou (designed to carry cargo, not orchestrate enemy fire) was valiant, Dick could only speak of the first-rate performance of his flight crew.

After arriving home safely the following April, Dick's next assignment was to fly a new aircraft, the giant C-5 Galaxy, which he flew all over Europe, Asia, and the Middle East filled with cargo, military personnel, and equipment. He was flying it back home during Neil Armstrong's "giant leap for mankind" upon the lunar surface, in the summer of 1969, which he celebrated with his family upon his return.

By the spring of 1970, Dick had the opportunity to attend the highly competitive Air Force Test Pilot School (ARPS) in the Muroc Desert out in California. He would follow in the footsteps of some of his idols; the likes of the aforementioned Chuck Yeager and Neil Armstrong had also flown there and set speed and altitude records.

Upon graduation from ARPS, he landed a job testing airplanes at Edwards Air Force Base. He flew a variety of experimental aircraft, exploring the limits of each one's altitude and speed, as well as their wings, engines, and brakes. The job also involved writing papers and giving speeches on the test results.

Dick Scobee went onto log over 6,500 hours of flight time in more than 45 types of aircraft. He was especially proud of his participation with the design team and test flight of the space shuttle carrier aircraft. His ultimate test flying experience, by far, however, was being selected to fly the X-24B lifting body, the prototype for the space shuttle. Though Dick would never speak highly of himself, his fellow test pilots claimed that he flew it "flawlessly."

It was a testimony just in time for what he would find in the LA Times classified section not long thereafter: NASA was seeking astronauts for their new space shuttle program.

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    • skydancer profile imageAUTHOR

      Ehren E Grunewald 

      4 months ago from New Orleans / NC

      @peggy-w: My pleasure! Yes, it is so tragic that a totally preventable accident took his life. He was a very honorable man. Thanks so much for stopping by!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      4 months ago from Houston, Texas

      Thanks for filling in the background information about Dick Scobee. From what you wrote, he was an upstanding individual in so many ways. It is sad to know that he died in that Challenger explosion along with the others on that mission.

    • skydancer profile imageAUTHOR

      Ehren E Grunewald 

      4 months ago from New Orleans / NC

      @eurofile: Thank you so much! He was so much more than just commander of that ill-fated Challenger mission and should be remembered & recognized as such! I'll be working on part 2!

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      4 months ago from UK

      You have written an interesting and well-structured autobiographical article. It is good that you have highlighted Commander Scobee, as he deserves recognition. I look forward to reading part 2.

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