Thirty years ago, June Scobee Rogers watched her husband die as the Space Shuttle Challenger broke up over the Atlantic Ocean. The disaster claimed the lives of seven astronauts, including commander Dick Scobee and Christa McAuliffe, who was selected to be the first-ever teacher in space. The tragic event, which saw the shuttle disintegrate just 73 seconds after lift-off, left the American nation in shock on Jan. 28, 1986. In memory of this tragic day, Metro speaks to Dick Scobee’s widow and experts about the disaster’s legacy.

June Scobee Rodgers.

June Scobee Rodgers.

June Scobee Rodgers

Widow of Challenger Space Shuttle Commander Dick Scobee

“Fiction of yesterday is real today”

You lost your husband in the Challenger disaster. What do you think NASA has learned and what are your personal feelings towards the disaster?

– I believe our space program took the recommendations to heart. And personally, I learned never to take a loved one or day in my life for granted. 

Was their mission important?

– They gave the world an opportunity to focus on the value and serious responsibility of space exploration. And gave our nation an example of hard-working, mission-oriented people who were willing to risk their lives for a purpose of higher calling. 

What’s become of the "Challenger family"?

– For the Challenger family (loved ones and friends) it gave us the challenge, then opportunity to continue their "Teacher in Space" mission to create the marvelous Challenger Center to reach millions of students with a leading STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) educational program. 

What does the future hold?

– All I can do is pray lessons have been learned about the difference between calculated vs. foolhardy risks. Space systems to move people into space are highly complex. I believe in the testing research, development process and trust the engineers and scientists' research capabilities as long as safety isn't neglected and serious responsibility and communication are respected. 

Is the science fiction of yesterday real today?

– Yes! I believe we are on the threshold of interplanetary space travel that will eventually lead to interstellar flights. I just wish I could live long enough to see it all come to pass. But for now, we can imagine and wish upon those stars. 

Dr. Kris Lehnhardt.

Dr. Kris Lehnhardt.

Dr. Kris Lehnhardt

Physician at George Washington University

“As result of the disaster, most new space vehicles are designed with escape mechanisms”

Was the tragedy avoidable?

– When the space shuttle was still a test vehicle, it had ejection seats. However, once it was deemed operational, the ejection seats were removed and there was no means of escape in the event of an emergency in-flight. When the Challenger explosion occurred, the crew had no way to evacuate the vehicle. After Challenger, an escape mechanism was designed for the space shuttle that would theoretically allow for evacuation from the vehicle if something went wrong early into the flight. That said, it still would have been extremely difficult to actually use.

Are there evacuation mechanisms in new spacecrafts?

– Yes, as a result of the disaster, most new space vehicles are designed with escape mechanisms from the beginning. All of the capsules that are being built have additional rockets which can carry the crew away from the rest of the vehicle in case of emergency.

Could this type of tragic event happen again?

– Space programs in general are safer now than they have ever been. However, just like flying in an airplane or driving a car, there is always inherent risk. Well-engineered systems that take human factors into account from the beginning are a key element in building a culture of safety. Yet, space exploration will always be associated with some danger. 

This year space tourism is predicted to start being popular…

– Space tourism is very close to coming to fruition. I do believe that it will be very popular in the future but in the early stages, excitement will take some time to build. People will be watching to see if it is safe and the only way to prove that is with numerous successful tests. I hope that companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin will soon be flying tourists to space but in order for that to happen, first there will have to be lots of vehicle testing and a good amount of planning for how to handle emergencies.

Dr. Howard P. Segal.

Dr. Howard P. Segal.

Dr. Howard P. Segal

Professor of History at University of Maine, U.S.

“Space programs are safe if they don’t involve humans”

What lessons have we learnt from the Challenger disaster?

– We’ve learned not to risk the lives of astronauts in order to fulfill, in this case, the crass political agenda of President Reagan to try to win back some support from teachers, who were dismayed by his efforts to dismantle the Cabinet Dept. of Education, by putting a schoolteacher into the shuttle. It was well documented that the O-rings might deteriorate if the temperature at launch time was below a certain number, as was the case with Challenger. But Reagan and his handlers wanted him to speak to the schoolteachers, thus appearing to give a damn about education. No less important is the fact that NASA’s top officials wanted to please the president and overruled the experts from Morton Thiokol who opposed the launch on that day and at that temperature in Florida.

What can you say about those who opposed Challenger’s launch, like engineering contractor Morton Thiokol? 

– That whistle-blowers like the few at Morton Thiokol who argued against the launch will be punished, not rewarded. The most outspoken whistleblower, Roger Boisjoly, was too prominent to be fired, as his bosses wanted, but he was instead reassigned to make-work jobs and shunned by his superiors. No one responsible for the unnecessary tragedy was ever jailed or even fined. The shuttle was falsely promoted as nearly as safe as commercial airliners.

How can these tragic events be prevented? 

– Deference to the real experts — who, to be sure, may have their own agendas such as being part of a successful "team."

How safe are the space programs now?

– As long as they don't involve humans, they're safe. But only a fool would think that they are anywhere as safe as NASA would have us believe, as with the International Space Center. The real problem, of course, is that most Americans, among others, no longer care about exploring outer space and the huge costs involved. Also, most Americans, at least, don't want the government to spend huge sums on space programs, unlike, say, the 1960s with President Kennedy.

What can we expect in the future?

– Space tourism will become popular for the wealthy adventurers who can afford it. But how safe, who knows? I'd be cautious if I could afford to go into space. Space travel depends, in large part, on economic and political conditions back on Earth more than on visionaries' preferences, unless, of course, the wealthy folks can expand their preliminary plans with their own funds.