By Becca Gladden, Senior Writer.
Mar 27, 2018
June Scobee Rodgers is an inspiring figure of immense talent who wears many hats. The widow of Challenger Space Shuttle Commander Richard “Dick” Scobee, June united the survivors’ families after the Challenger accident and led the movement to create the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. She remains the public face of the organization and continues to serve as its Founding Chair.
Thirty years after the first Challenger Learning Center opened in Houston in 1988, the network of Challenger Learning Centers now includes more than 40 locations on three continents. The centers honor the mission and legacy of the STS-51-L crew, including the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe.
An educator herself, June received a PhD from Texas A&M University, served on the President’s National Advisory Council on Education, and was awarded the distinguished Alan Shepard Technology in Education Award. Throughout her professional career, she taught students in every grade level from kindergarten through college.
June is in demand throughout the world as a gifted public speaker on a variety of topics, including education, leadership, aerospace, motivation and inspiration. Remarkably – though not surprisingly – proceeds from her speaking honoraria are donated to the Challenger Center.
Additionally, June is an award-winning author of both nonfiction books and children’s titles. She has written two memoirs about her life which focus on her unparalleled perseverance, inspiring countless readers to overcome challenges and pursue their dreams. Her Star Challengers science adventure books for young readers – including one which takes them on a journey to a future moon base – were hailed by Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong as “the next best thing to being there.”
Beyond all her amazing accomplishments, June Scobee Rodgers is, fundamentally, a teacher: not just a classroom educator, but a role model who teaches everyone she meets about courage, kindness, grace, and dignity, simply by the way she lives her life.
Photo © June Scobee Rodgers.
On a Zero Gravity flight of G-Force One, June experiences weightlessness for the fist time.
A lot of people know you through your work with the Challenger Center, but tell me about your background. Where did you grow up? What were you like as a little girl and what did you want to be when you grew up?
I grew up in Texas, but spent a couple of years in Alabama and a few years in Florida. I traveled around quite a bit with an itinerant carpenter father. There were divorces and we basically had a dysfunctional family. I worked through a great deal of that by learning how I could overcome my own disadvantages by having more positive thinking. I created my own ideas and formula for how to overcome difficulties, which guided me.
As a child, I was precocious – that would be one word. My mother used to say, “No, actually, what they mean is, you’re obnoxious.” Part of that was probably because I was always questioning and trying to find better ways to do things. I knew that life didn’t have to be as difficult as it was and, if I could change my life, maybe I could help other people find some opportunities in their own lives.
I married Dick Scobee as a teenager. We met at my church. He wanted to be a pilot and I wanted to be a teacher, and we both agreed that, unless we went to college, we couldn’t fulfill those dreams. We both started studying at a night school and eventually at colleges, and we didn’t give up until he became a test pilot and an astronaut, and I became a teacher, a graduate professor, and a researcher for different companies and agencies, and we had two lovely children along the way.
It sounds like you had some unique qualities that helped you overcome adversity and led you to strive for more. Was that part of your personality or did something influence you, like a mentor or perhaps something you heard growing up?
Part of it is personality, part of it is good fortune, and part of it is making opportunities for yourself. I was extremely curious and always wanted to know the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ – what made that work, why is it like that, why does it have to be that way? A lot of it was resolving to go beyond accepting the mediocre.
A book I read when I was 9 years old, The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale, was tremendously rewarding. It helped me to create my own inner formula that I labeled my ABCs to overcome adversity. ‘A’ is to accept your problems and challenges; ‘B’ is to believe in yourself and a power greater than yourself; ‘C’ is to have the courage to commit yourself to a better way; to making a difference or helping others, whatever the situation is.
Later on, I added a ‘D’ for dreams – not just my own dreams, but I had a burning passion to be a dream maker and help other people find their dreams and find their discoveries along the way.
You mentioned getting your degree in education. Did you go into a classroom teaching position right after graduating?
My first degree was out of South Carolina and that was a biology degree with some minors in English and education. I did teach in the first job I could get, and it had a great deal of challenges. I was very naïve, being so young. I loved my students and they were involved in contacting me forever, but that was a special year.
Dick Scobee was being transferred and we moved out to California. I took on teaching jobs there. The first year was teaching high school, then middle school, then we came back to Texas where I taught more high school. I taught reading to elementary school children after a reading specialty. I dabbled in all kinds of things and I enjoyed every grade level. I loved working with the little children, but you’ve got to be young and have lots of energy with those little ones. Then, I got my PhD at Texas A&M in technology education and was a graduate level professor for students getting their master’s degrees.
You talked about marrying Dick Scobee and the fact that he wanted to be a pilot when you met him. Was becoming an astronaut also part of the plan?
No – in fact, he never tried to aspire to something so far into the future, which was a good lesson for me as well. He was a mentor and a role model, but I think we were for each other. Being a pilot was his ultimate dream, and then there’s an extension of that to be a test pilot, which allowed him to fly more varied airplanes and test them. With that, and my work on a master’s and PhD, we supported each other in the science fields and flying. We both flew airplanes and he was my best guest speaker to my students. We would make time to make a difference for each other.
I mentioned to him when we were first dating, “What about these brand-new astronauts? Would you want to be an astronaut?” And he said something like, “I just want to fly airplanes with wings and maybe someday a jet. I don’t know if I’ll ever have an opportunity to do what those famous astronauts are doing.” Then, one day, there was a little advertisement when we lived in California, in the Los Angeles Times, that said, “Space Shuttle Astronauts Wanted.”
He had already flown the shuttle prototype, the X-24, so I think he felt maybe that was a stepping stone, but he said, “No way, it will be too competitive.” Of course, I was encouraging him as well: “You’ll never know if you don’t try.” So, he did, and sure enough, it was highly competitive, but he came out on top and passed all the interviews and physical tests with flying colors and he became an astronaut. Then, history tells the rest.
He was quite modest and when people would ask him, “What is your job?” he would say, “I’m a pilot,” and then they would get around to, “Oh, you fly the shuttle. You’re an astronaut!” If we were together, he would turn the question around and focus it on me. He would say, “I’m just someone who flies weightless in space. My wife is in a career where she really makes a difference in people’s lives.” He always had a fun or interesting quote to turn the attention toward me. “She is a teacher who inspires youngsters to reach for their stars.” It was my chance to say, “I’m proud to be an educator. I might not be able to be a test pilot or an astronaut, but I can inspire my students – rather than looking at opportunities as something daunting, to think of them as a challenge and find the passion for their special interest.”
So much has been written and discussed about the Challenger accident over the years and I think everyone who has heard your story admires the strength you showed following the accident. Did you fall back on your ABC formula to get through that incredibly difficult time?
Two days after the Challenger accident, I was sitting with President Reagan and Nancy Reagan. Nancy took my hand at the moment the missing man formation was flying over the lovely campus at Johnson Space Center. I was weeping, and she wanted to know why. Of course, that’s a tremendous loss, but I said, “I think NASA will continue the space mission, but who will continue Christa’s mission of education?”
I was determined at that moment that I would do all I could to see that Christa’s lessons reached children waiting to hear from the beloved school teacher. All the families agreed with me and, together, we announced that we would continue that mission – not just with lessons, but with an opportunity for students to experience something that our loved ones had such a passion for that they were willing to risk their lives on the adventure of space exploration. All the families got together to create that, and, with a lot of support from many people, we were able to come up with the idea of a simulation experience for students.
That’s how the Challenger Center evolved and, yes, it was ‘accepting’ my problems as a challenge. I took that on as something thrilling in a way: that we didn’t have to just hear about our loved ones and how they died; we could actually do something to bring about something informational and educational, something visual and hands-on for people to know how they lived and why they were willing to risk their lives.
And then, the ‘belief’ in myself. My goodness – I did all these things coming from nowhere and nothing. I certainly believed in myself, but it took a lot of prayer. The families and I sat around praying for the strength and guidance to overcome the difficulties and actually find the support that we needed – and, by support, I mean money to help us.
It took a lot of ‘courage’ sometimes to stand in front of people like you asking questions. When I stood in a room full of reporters, I thought, “Oh, this is there the ‘C’ comes in – the courage to answer their questions.” There are so many people that I owe gratitude to for all they’ve done to help us accomplish our goals.
Looking back on the incredible success of the Challenger organization over the past 30 years, you must be very proud of the impact the centers have had in inspiring an entire generation of students.
As you say, it’s tremendously rewarding to step in and see youngsters doing something that our loved ones were passionately working on. It’s also rewarding to hear how students have been inspired and have moved on into careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
Just today, I heard from a young woman who had gotten her PhD in electrical engineering and she was professing how everything she had learned was inspired by that time at the Challenger Center. She was applying to NASA for a job and she was saying she thinks solutions to problems can be found in space – not only extending our reach into the universe, but also enhancing life on our own planet. I thought, “Oh, I couldn’t have said it better.” It was thrilling.
A couple of years ago, I went to see my dermatologist and she said, “You’re June Scobee, right? Are you Dr. Scobee?” I said yes, and she said, “I was at the MED [medical] Station as a middle school student at the Challenger Center and that’s when I thought, ‘I want to be a doctor.’ Now, here I am, your doctor.” Every week, something like that happens and it’s just marvelous.
There are many changes taking place in space exploration today, including the efforts of private industry, and debates about what our next space mission should be. How are the Challenger Centers reflecting those changes and what do you think the future holds?
All of our staff, and certainly I, stay abreast of all the activities taking place in the commercialization of space as well as the government, and we support each other. The government – NASA – learns from others who are privately spending their billions of dollars, which is very altruistic of them to do something like that. I think they’ve narrowed it down to going back to the Moon and then Mars, and it’s comforting to me to know that there is a direction.
At Challenger Center, we not only continue to evolve what the Challenger Learning Center is – the simulation activities – but we are also creating opportunities for the classroom, and one of them is the EngiLearn™ simulation activities for the classroom. We are in the process of testing that and evaluating its success in the classroom. That’s a way for us to reach more people.
The Centers continue to grow, and, in fact, I’ll be in Ireland soon with some folks in Dublin who want to build a Challenger Center. There is already one at the University of Leicester in England and two more being built over there; we have one in Seoul, South Korea, and in Canada, so we are international. At least 10 are in different stages of being built now, so they continue to grow and evolve.
The staff are ingenious at looking to the future and how we can personally support a classroom teacher and provide resources to the teacher and find ways for it to be fun for the students. We are not stagnant. Thanks to a great staff, I’ve just hung on, because they are amazing. Whether it’s at our headquarters office or our flight directors and educators at the Centers, I am always impressed with their passion for what they do. A passion is contagious. The folks working in the field love it and that is passed on to the students as well. It’s onward and upward.
I want to touch on your work as author, particularly your Star Challengers series for young readers, as well as your nonfiction books. How did that come about?
The Star Challengers series was a lot of fun. I felt like I’d been on the Moon when I got involved writing about the Moon. I had begun writing stories about how children at the Challenger Center went off on an authentic space mission with a mentor who was from outer space. I had it pretty well outlined with a plot and characterization and, lo and behold, I met a famous science author who looked at the material and said, “It’s great. You just need more action if you want kids to read it.” That was tremendously rewarding that they became such fantastic books for kids.
My own nonfiction books – I wrote the first little book 10 years after the Challenger to show that, yes, we did fulfill that dream for the mission to succeed. Once I was married to General Rodgers, he encouraged me to take that little book and write about my childhood, how I grew up, and my life before and after Challenger. He thought that my childhood might help someone struggling – he said, “Even if it only helps one person.” Well, it’s amazing that I have heard from so many people who overcame their difficulties. It was helpful that he encouraged that writing and that it has received so much interest.
Did the publication of your books lead to your role as a public speaker, as more people became aware that you had an important and inspiring story to share?
As a teacher, your most challenging audience is the classroom students. But, moving on to defend my research, and then becoming a board member for science teachers and gifted education, whether at the state or national level, I became a speaker for their annual conferences. So, I had already been speaking prior to receiving the PhD and becoming a professor, and I continued on with that speaking. It was kind of a way of life for me to be sharing the research and passing on the information.
I think my first speech regarding the Challenger was two months after the accident, when I spoke at a national teachers’ organization. The book tour certainly added to more speaking and it carries me far and wide. I had a lot of fun speaking in England a couple of years ago when our organization won the International Technology in Education Award, which they gave me. In my speech, I accepted the award and gave the staff all the credit. It’s rewarding – not only the opportunity to share the stories, but to share the success of everyone who works at the centers and the staff who are innovative themselves. I’ll be speaking in Hawaii for the 25th anniversary of the Challenger Learning Center out there; the Governor of that state asked me to speak.
Going back to your ABCs, you talked about adding the letter ‘D’ for dreams. Do you still have some dreams that you’re striving to fulfill? You’ve had an incredible life and accomplished so much, but what is on the horizon for you?
There are days that it seems a bit daunting – that’s another ‘D.’ Always continuing with a team effort on the International Board of Directors, we have been involved in strategic planning for the direction that we might take Challenger Center in, and we are looking for even more innovative ways to help bring about the passion of what our loved ones were all about and what now belongs to the future. In fact, we’re always just as happy for our students to come away knowing that was their mission. I don’t think any of us feel a requirement that they know it was based on the Challenger dream, but that they are able to go ahead and fulfill their own dreams. My dream is to see that more people have the opportunity to fulfill their dreams.
Your son followed in his father’s footsteps as an Air Force pilot. How is he doing today and how is the rest of your family?
He’s a Major General now. He’s stationed in Georgia, so he’s a bit closer to my home in Tennessee. My daughter, Kathie Scobee Fulgham, has her own public relations firm and she is successful and beautiful, inside and out.
I have nine wonderful grandchildren that I absolutely adore, and, like any grandmother, I carry their pictures and I’m happy to talk about each individual at length.
They’ve all gone into engineering, science, math or education – every one of them. One day, I had them all together and I said, “What is this all about? You’re all in this one area.” They looked at each other and looked at me and said, “We’ve heard your speeches. You weren’t just inspiring other kids – you were inspiring us, too.”
June Scobee Rodgers, the widow of Challenger Space Shuttle Commander Richard "Dick" Scobee, has dedicated her time and energy to continuing the crew's educational mission. Discover more about June at her website and Facebook page. Immediately following the tragedy, June channeled grief into action and led the Challenger shuttle families, along with others, to create Challenger Center, a living tribute to their loved ones. To learn more about Challenger Learning Center, visit their website and Facebook page.