Former San Antonio resident recalls late husband in docuseries Challenger: The Final Flight

click to enlarge June Scobee Rodgers - Challenger Center
Challenger Center
June Scobee Rodgers
Challenger: The Final Flight, a four-part Netflix docuseries on the 1986 NASA space shuttle disaster, revisits the ill-fated launch that took the lives of all seven crew members and the impact it had on the country. Through rare archive footage and interviews with astronauts, space-program experts and family members who lost loved ones that day, viewers gain a glimpse of how the national tragedy unfolded.

One of the family members featured in the series is June Scobee Rodgers, the widow of Challenger Commander Dick Scobee. The two met in San Antonio when June was a 16-year-old student at Harlandale High School and Dick was a 19-year-old airman at Kelly AFB.

After Dick’s death, June would go on to establish the Challenger Center for K-12 STEM education. Today, those centers can be found in 43 locations around the globe, including one at San Antonio College, home to the Scobee Planetarium.

During an interview with the Current last week, June Scobee Rodgers talked about the new docuseries, sharing her personal grief with the world and her everlasting love for San Antonio.

There have been a handful of film and TV projects over the years that have tried to capture the story of the Challenger mission. What was it about this docuseries that resonated with you?

There have been many informative Challenger stories. One [film] had actors and actresses, but not one family member cared for it. We said we’d rather see a documentary with the real people. There was another Challenger [TV] program where they tried to get me to memorize the words that they wanted me to say. I said, “I’m sorry, but I’m not an actress. I don’t memorize lines. I speak from my heart.” But this time, the Netflix creators were so sincere about the reasons they wanted to create it and bring on credible people who were actually there to tell the story, including many of the Challenger families.

After nearly 35 years, is it comforting on some level for you to revisit the tragic event you experienced in such a public way?

When I first learned the Netflix folks wanted to interview me, I was grieved thinking my private story of grief was going to be made public one more time. Then I had to stop and realize that my private grief was made public due to the historic nature of the nation’s space pioneers, including a lovely schoolteacher (Christa McAuliffe) on board who we were all identifying with. But never have I worked with anyone in the media like the creators at Netflix. They had sensitivity and credibility.

What were you feeling as you watched the finished series?

It was a rollercoaster ride of emotions. There was lots of sadness and surprises. There were things I didn’t know, like how some of the decisions [to launch] came about. My eyes were opened to that. But there were also many snippets of joy. To see my husband and friends [in archive footage] and to see how happy we all were brought plenty of joy and sorrow.

You talk a lot about your time living in San Antonio with Dick in your book Silver Linings: My Life Before and After Challenger 7. What were some of your favorite places to visit together?

Well, certainly the Japanese Tea Garden was somewhere we could go where we didn’t have to spend a lot of money. It was joyful. We went there many times. Also, we would park at the airstrip at Kelly Air Force Base. At the time, Dick was an airplane mechanic there. He would insist on telling me all about how those planes flew and the work he did on them. It was a teaching exercise as much as it was something that we shared together.

As much as you moved around early in your life, I found it interesting how you somehow always found your way back to San Antonio.

I still have family there, and some of my dearest friends live in San Antonio. We visit with each other regularly on the phone. Now, I have a great-granddaughter who lives there. San Antonio is in our blood!

Is there something specific you hope viewers of the docuseries take from it?

First, I’d like them to understand who Dick Scobee was. He loved our country. He loved San Antonio. You could see how serious he was as the commander of his crew. I hope they see the seriousness of the space program and how much effort it takes to put together a space mission. I hope they learn about the unique astronauts that flew — men and women from different religions and cultures. Without the business of risk, there is no new knowledge or discoveries.

How did Dick describe space to you?

He came back with stars in his eyes talking about seeing the darkness and the majesty of the universe. I remember we were at a restaurant and he kept tucking his napkin under his plate because he thought it was going to float away. He wasn’t used to the gravity yet.

If given the opportunity, would space be something you would want to see for yourself?

(Laughs.) Well, if they need a grandmother to fly into space for something, sign me up!

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