Cadets honor Challenger's memory; some can never forget

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Raymond Hoy
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
On the surface, it was a reveille ceremony like any other. Cadets were lined up in formation waiting for the first note to sound. The honor guard was in place prepared to hoist the flag. And a bugler was standing by waiting for his queue.

However, this was anything but a typical reveille ceremony. The more than 4,000 cadets on hand were there to honor an event that is ingrained in many Americans minds. An event that turned all eyes toward NASA for something grimmer than a glorious occasion like a moon landing: the Challenger Shuttle disaster.

The unique reveille ceremony took place Jan. 28 as part of the 25th anniversary of the Challenger Shuttle explosion and included the raising of a special American flag over the Terrazzo.

The flag was sponsored by Boy Scout Troop 514 of Monument, Colo., and was flown on the shuttle during its final mission. The flag survived the explosion and was returned to the troop in a special ceremony Dec. 18, 1986. It has been included in many special ceremonies since then, including being displayed in Salt Lake City during the 2002 Winter Olympics.

It was only by chance that the flag flew on the Challenger mission in the first place. The flag was flown over the U.S. Capitol Jan. 25, 1985 and was petitioned by the troop to be flown on a space shuttle. However, it didn't really go as planned.

"The first two times, it was bumped," said Lt. Col. Larkin Hastriter, Cadet Group 1 commander and Troop 514 scoutmaster. "It was finally able to get on the shuttle for the Challenger mission."

Only Eagle Scouts are allowed to handle the flag, including the Cadet Honor Guard selected to raise the flag during Friday's ceremony.

"Eagle Scout is the highest rank a Boy Scout can attain," Colonel Hastriter said. "It was decided that only someone who's reached that mark could be trusted to handle this flag." The five Eagle Scouts who lifted the flag Jan. 28 were the same five who took it down that afternoon.

The Challenger connection to the Academy goes beyond the flag and Troop 514. Lt. Col. Richard Scobee was the shuttle commander for the mission. His son, now-Brig. Gen. Richard Scobee, was a cadet first class at the Air Force Academy at the time of the explosion and watched the launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

"At liftoff, the sheer power of the solid rocket motors reverberated in my chest more than I had ever felt before," said General Scobee, now serving as deputy director of operations for U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense in Colorado Springs, Colo. "I watched the shuttle accelerate, rotate heads-down and start arcing toward a low Earth orbit. I thought to myself, 'It is such a clear day, we should have no trouble seeing the SRBs separate.'"

The Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff. General Scobee would have to return to the Academy to not only deal with the loss of his father but to try and finish his final semester.

"It sucked," General Scobee said. "I was trying to graduate from the Academy, no small task, and then go on to pilot training. The majority of us have felt the loss and devastation of losing someone they love. That pain is universal. My family had just shared ours with a nation."

But he didn't get through it alone. General Scobee saw what it truly meant to be a cadet when he returned to the Academy.

"The faculty and my class, especially (my) immediate friends in Cadet Squadron 16, really rallied around me and helped get me focused," the general explained. "The Academy is a tough place, but that's what makes the friendships I have from there so dear. In fact, my mom still talks about how our class kept in contact with her for many years."

General Scobee moved on, but he would always remember that day in 1986 throughout his career as something he had to overcome not only personally but professionally.

"My dad was the most humble and innocuous guy around. No one knew anything about him, or me, until the accident. I went from everyone knowing me for 'me' to being Dick Scobee's son," the general said. "That's a lot to overcome, and at first I struggled with it. I'd never measure up to that. Then, with a lot of help from a good friend, my Academy roommate, and family, I just decided I was going to have to be happy in my own skin ... and I am."

General Scobee learned how to deal with the tragedy. He moved on the way the rest of America moved on. But people who remember that day won't soon forget it.

"When I think back to where I was, glued to a small black and white TV in school with my friends in Missouri, it's hard to forget," Colonel Hastriter said. "The images from the disaster are similarly burned into my memory as the Twin Towers falling. There are certain events in history that are unique and are captured in our hearts forever; that's one of them."

While most of those old enough still remember, it is the duty of people like our cadets to never forget.

"There is no better tribute by some great Americans for some great Americans," General Scobee said. "When we put a premium on honorable and selfless acts, it makes us better people."