NEW YORK – When news broke of the Columbia shuttle disaster, they felt the families’ grief like few others could.
June Scobee Rodgers and Kathie Scobee Fulgham had been through something similar. Francis "Dick" Scobee, June’s husband and Kathie’s father, was the commander of the Challenger shuttle that exploded in 1986.
The women remembered the horror of watching a family member die. They knew what it was like to be close to someone lost in a national tragedy. And they intended to help the families left behind this time.
"I want to be there for them any time of the day or night, when they need any kind of support, information or encouragement," Scobee Rodgers said in a telephone interview.
Since the Feb. 1 Columbia disaster, the Challenger families have delicately reached out to those of this crew — trying to be helpful yet respectful of their mourning. They met with them after the Johnson Space Center Memorial in Houston, passed along home phone numbers and e-mail addresses, and offered embraces, guidance and words of comfort.
"There were no formal statements or presentations," Scobee Rodgers said. "We were just going around the room, embracing each other. We were sad, and we found funny things to talk about, too. Their families were supporting us as much as the other way around."
Her daughter, Kathie, wrote a letter to the Columbia children — much as she did for those who lost parents in the Sept. 11 attacks.
"We, the Challenger children and all the children of public disasters, are … holding your hands and hugging you from afar," she wrote. "You are not alone."
Seven astronauts died in each of the two shuttle accidents, and each tragedy left 12 children behind. Rick Husband, Kalpana Chawla, William McCool, David Brown, Laurel Clark, Michael Anderson and Ilan Ramon all perished aboard Columbia; lost on the Challenger were Scobee, Christa McAuliffe, Michael J. Smith, Ellison S. Onizuka, Judith A. Resnik, Ronald E. McNair and Gregory B. Jarvis.
Scobee Fulgham was 25 when her father died. She wanted those who lost parents on Columbia to see the grown Challenger children so they’d know their lives would continue.
"Life goes on," she said in a phone interview. "It goes on differently. But good things will come still."
Out of respect for the Columbia families, neither of the Scobee women spoke about specific exchanges, but instead gave general accounts of what they’ve done to date.
Scobee Rodgers has been a liaison to the casualty assistance officer assigned by NASA to help the families. She’s sent correspondence with detailed answers to questions the Columbia spouses have had about everything from the Space Shuttle Children’s Trust Fund to coping methods for getting through the grief.
Scobee Fulgham said she tried to answer questions the Columbia children had. Some wanted to know how long it would take to feel better or how to share specific experiences they were going through.
"Some of the children said they needed as much information as possible. Some weren’t ready to talk yet," she said.
She remembers that after the Challenger disaster she "just wanted to fade into the background. I didn’t want anybody looking at me."
Her mother had a different way of mourning, finding comfort in daily meetings at her coffee table with the other Challenger spouses.
The spouses found an uplifting way to commemorate the crew: They created the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, a foundation with 47 learning centers around the country. Students in grades 5 to 8 apply their science and math knowledge to a project in which they simulate space missions. The program is particularly fitting because McAuliffe was to be the first teacher and ordinary citizen in space.
"Rather than a granite memorial or a static statue, (the families) wanted to create a living, working memorial of how the crew lived," said Howard Wahlberg, vice president of marketing at the Alexandria, Va.-based Challenger Center.
Scobee Rodgers said she’s invited the Columbia spouses to get involved in the project in their own time, if they want to. The Challenger families just want to do whatever they can.
"It’s so heartfelt," said Scobee Rodgers. "We walk in their shoes."