"My dad's briefcase was in his room. Mom opened it," Kathie Scobee Fulgham told PEOPLE
The images are indelible: On the clear, cold morning of Jan. 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger embarked on its 10th milestone mission. But disaster struck 73 seconds later when the shuttle exploded, killing the seven astronauts on board.
The shuttle commander was Dick Scobee. He was joined by six other astronauts: Michael J. Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe, the first civilian in space.
As the disaster unfolded, the astronauts’ families watched from the ground in horror.
After the accident, the families were ushered into the crew quarters to await further news. It was there that the Scobee family made a discovery that would change the rest of their lives.
“My dad’s briefcase was in his room,” Kathie Scobee Fulgham told PEOPLE in January 2016, which marked the 30th anniversary of the tragedy. “Mom opened it. Among his personal belongings: a wallet, his keys, pictures of his family, shuttle souvenir pins, business cards, astronomy charts, flight manuals and an unsigned Valentine’s Day card for my mom. [There] was a scrap of paper bearing his handwriting.”
On that scrap of paper: an inspiring quote from author Ben Bova. “We have whole planets to explore. We have new worlds to build. We have a solar system to roam in. And if only a tiny fraction of the human race reaches out toward space, the work they do there will totally change the lives of all the billions of humans who remain on Earth, just as the striving of a handful of colonists in the new world totally changed the lives of everyone in Europe, Asia and Africa.”
For the Scobee family, the quote gave them hope. “We don’t know why that quote was in his briefcase,” Fulgham, 53, told PEOPLE. “Maybe he was planning on using it for a speech. Maybe he just liked it. But that message served as a beacon to us about why Dad chose the path he chose as an explorer. It gave us hope for the future — our future.”
Thirty years later, the Scobee family indicated they were still reaching for the stars as strong proponents of education centers that teach kids about space exploration.
More than 40 Challenger Centers exist across the country, giving children a hands-on education in space exploration. There are simulations and role-playing exercises. Kids learn to solve problems that they might encounter on a space flight. Teamwork is encouraged.
For Fulgham, it’s a natural extension of her father’s mission: “Look at the astronauts. It was a cross-section of America. There were two women. There was an Asian American, an African American. Judith Resnick was Jewish. And you know what? What mattered was their mission. They were united together to do something great.”
That unity has extended to the astronauts’ families, who share a common bond. “All the families want their work to continue,” she said. “If the work didn’t continue, what would be the point of their deaths?”
Another way that Fulgham is trying to continue her father’s legacy is through the Astronauts Memorial Foundation, a living memorial to the astronauts that seeks to improve American education through technology in schools.
So if one of Fulgham’s four children wanted to be an astronaut, would she give her approval? “Absolutely,” she said without hesitation. “Absolutely. I will support my kids in anything they want to do, and I would be proud for them to go into space exploration. Very proud.”