On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger explodes during take-off, killing shuttle commander Francis R. "Dick" Scobee (1939-1986) and six other astronauts. Billions of people around the world are watching the launch and see the accident on television. It becomes one of the most significant events of the 1980s. Scobee was born in 1939 in Cle Elum, Washington, and grew up in Auburn, Washington. The Dick Scobee Elementary School in Auburn is named for him.
The space shuttle was on its 10th mission, designated STS (for Space Transportation System) 51-L. Scobee had served as pilot on the Challenger's successful fifth mission, STS 41-C, in April 1984. The main purpose of STS 51-L was to put a launch station type of satellite into orbit and to put instruments in space that would record data on Haley's Comet.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA's) published short biography of Scobee follows:
"The spacecraft commander was Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Francis W. Scobee. He was born on May 19, 1939, in Cle Elum, Washington, and graduated from the public high school in Auburn, Washington, in 1957. He then enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, training as a reciprocating engine mechanic but longing to fly. He took night courses and in 1965 completed a B.S. degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Arizona. This made it possible for Scobee to receive an officer's commission and enter the Air Force pilot training program. He received his pilot's wings in 1966 and began a series of flying assignments with the Air Force, including a combat tour in Vietnam. Scobee also married June Kent of San Antonio, Texas, and they had two children, Kathie R. and Richard W., in the early 1960s. He attended the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California, in 1972 and thereafter was involved in several test programs. As an Air Force test pilot Scobee flew more than 45 types of aircraft, logging more than 6,500 hours of flight time.
In 1978 Scobee entered NASA's astronaut corps and was the pilot of STS-41-C, the fifth orbital flight of the Challenger spacecraft, launching from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on April 6, 1984. During this seven-day mission the crew successfully retrieved and repaired the ailing Solar Maximum Satellite and returned it to orbit. This was an enormously important mission, because it demonstrated the capability that NASA had long said existed with the Space Shuttle to repair satellites in orbit" (NASA).
The other crewmembers who died in the Challenger accident were:
- Michael J. Smith, pilot (1945-1986)
- Judith A. Resnik (1949-1986), Mission Specialist, electrical engineer. She was the second woman to go into space, as crewmember of the maiden voyage of Discovery
- Ronald E. McNair (1950-1986), mission specialist, physicist
- Ellison S. Onizuka (1946-1986), flight test engineer
- Gregory B. Jarvis (1944-1986), a payload specialist employed by Hughes Aircraft Corp.
- Sharon Christa McAuliffe (1948-1986), the first teacher to fly in space, selected from among 11,000 applications.