When the space shuttle Challenger lifted off on its ill-fated mission 32 years ago, it was commanded by a native of Central Washington.

Francis R. “Dick” Scobee, who was born in Cle Elum, was last heard acknowledging the order to bring the shuttle’s engines to full throttle: “Roger, go with full throttle up.”

Three seconds later, as millions were watching on live television, the shuttle’s main fuel tank exploded, killing Scobee and his six crewmates. Among them was schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.

Scobee, a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, was born May 19, 1939, in Cle Elum. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1957 after graduating from Auburn High School.

In the Air Force, Scobee was initially trained as a mechanic, but he didn’t want to just fix airplanes. He wanted to fly them.

Taking night classes, he earned a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Arizona in 1965, which allowed him to become a commissioned officer and begin flight school in 1966.

Scobee flew as a combat pilot in Vietnam before becoming a test pilot in 1972, logging more than 6,500 hours in more than 45 different aircraft.

He joined the astronaut corps in 1978 where he qualified as a pilot for the space shuttle, which was still in development.

In addition to his astronaut duties, Scobee instructed pilots flying the Boeing 747 jets that transported shuttles from Edwards Air Force Base — where shuttles first landed during the early missions — and the launch site at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Scobee made his first trip into space on April 6, 1984, piloting the Challenger on a mission to retrieve the Solar Maximum Satellite for the first-ever repair in orbit. During that mission, astronauts also tested the manned maneuvering units astronauts could use for untethered spacewalks, as well as transported bees for an experiment on building honeycombs in zero gravity.

He was tapped to command Challenger as it went on the “Teacher in Space” mission, in which McAuliffe would teach a lesson for students from orbit. In October 1985, Scobee told family members at a reunion in Auburn that the mission would likely be his last trip into space, as there were 109 astronauts in the shuttle program.

But an aunt told the New York Times that Scobee was content with that, as he said he had achieved everything he wanted in life.

On Jan. 28, 1986, with Scobee in command, the shuttle blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center. A later investigation showed NASA officials ignored warnings from engineers with rocket-builder Morton-Thiokol that the rubber O-rings in the shuttle’s solid-fuel rocket boosters could become brittle and fail in cold temperatures.

That investigation found the O-ring failed, causing a blowtorch-like flame from the rocket to burn through the shuttle’s main fuel tank and ignite the liquid hydrogen fuel.

Scobee is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. During his career, he had also received the Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal and two NASA Exceptional Service Medals.

He was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame on May 1, 2004. Dick Scobee Elementary School in Auburn was also named in his memory.


It Happened Here is a weekly history column by Yakima Herald-Republic reporter Donald W. Meyers. Reach him at 509-577-7748 or dmeyers@yakimaherald.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/donaldwmeyers.