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Challenger widow 'rejuvenated with space exploration'

June Scobee Rodgers
June Scobee Rodgers

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(CNN) -- Eighteen years ago Wednesday the Challenger shuttle exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven crew members, and NASA announced it was designating the Mars rover Opportunity's landing site Challenger Memorial Station in honor of the astronauts.

June Scobee Rodgers, the widow of Challenger's commander, Dick Scobee, talked with CNN's Miles O'Brien from her home in Chattanooga, Tennessee, about the anniversary of the 1986 tragedy and the upcoming one-year anniversary of the Columbia shuttle disaster.

O'BRIEN: I'm curious what your thoughts are on this day.

SCOBEE RODGERS: A special announcement from NASA. What an honor for the Challenger crew. All the families I've talked with about this ... we're really over the moon about the Opportunity's landing site being named for the Challenger crew.

O'BRIEN: Over the moon and all the way to Mars. Yes.

[LAUGHTER]

O'BRIEN: We've talked about this many times, and frequently on this day you like to focus on the future and on your mission with the Challenger Learning Centers. But you've had an opportunity to talk to all the family members, I know, over the past couple days. How is everybody holding up now,18 years later?

SCOBEE RODGERS: Everyone's great. Lovely families, children and grandchildren galore. Marriages coming up for some of our children in the next few months. So we're moving on and living a very exciting life as we continue this mission for our loved ones.

O'BRIEN: A lot of that raw emotion, I'm sure, came back a year ago Sunday when the Columbia tragedy occurred. How has that changed the way the families are dealing with things? And how much contact have you had with the Columbia families?

SCOBEE RODGERS: Of course, we wanted to comfort the Columbia families in any way that we could to let them know that it was a national tragedy, and to help them separate their very personal loss from this national effort.

And as my daughter said so beautifully, the nation wanted to say goodbye to American heroes. And the children just want it say goodbye to their daddy or their mother.

It's -- it was a very difficult time. But today, we are rejuvenated with space exploration, with new vision for the future. And it's exciting as we move forward.

O'BRIEN: I want to talk to you a little more about that. But I'm curious what sort of advice do you give the Columbia families when you're asked?

SCOBEE RODGERS: They're very dear people, very special, loving. They're articulate. But they were hurting a very personal loss that is separate from this national loss that so many can identify with. And we wanted to comfort them in that way.

And, you know, if words could really bring back their loved ones, we would speak volumes. But words couldn't. Just our presence to let them know that we love and care for them. And many times over, they've said to see us doing well helped them in their grieving.

We're all individuals as we go down this path of grief. And to acceptance. And they're marvelous people.

O'BRIEN: You and the other families of Challenger have focused so much on education. It was, after all, the mission of Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher to fly in space. And the Challenger Learning Centers, which you have spearheaded, have really evolved into something special for middle school students.

You say you're about to open your 51st center. How does that help on a day-to-day basis for the families, knowing that there's this vibrant mission out there of education?

SCOBEE RODGERS: Isn't it tremendous that that mission does continue of exploration and to learn and to inspire? And that every day youngsters return to the moon, or they have a mission to Mars, a rendezvous with a comet.

And to see that these youngsters are enjoying something very much that our loved ones were willing to risk their lives for is reward in itself. So their mission continues through the inspiration of these youngsters.

And today a youngster might be flying a mission to Mars and actually -- in a simulation at the learning center -- and actually be someone whose steps are on Mars. So it's a tremendous effort.

O'BRIEN: Just a final thought then. When you heard President Bush offer his new initiative for space, was there a lot of support among the Challenger families for that idea?

SCOBEE RODGERS: It certainly does rejuvenate this whole space exploration thing. And the opportunities, not only for our communities to inspire youngsters to study math and science, but our nation, it's a bonding activity for all of us to think about America and moving forward in space exploration and for our planet.

Just talk to any astronaut who's flown in space, who looks back at this little vulnerable planet that's in orbit. And you want to come back and help this homeland, this environment that we have been given a chance to live on.

It is truly a wonderful opportunity for all of mankind. And you can't pick up a cell phone and talk without thinking about space exploration benefiting us, or an MRI at a hospital or new opportunity for energy. It's all derived from space exploration.

So we -- I think it's a marvelous opportunity for our nation to lead the way in space exploration again.


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