Thirty-six years ago today, January 28, 1986, the NASA Space Shuttle orbiter Challenger exploded and broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of its seven crew members, including the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe. Challenger disaster
Space Shuttle flights began to seem routine by 1986, but the addition of a teacher heightened interest in this launch. Schools had assemblies, offices turned on their TVs, etc., everyone wanted to watch the launch. Sadly, the celebration lasted only a minute and 13 seconds. Then the Space Shuttle blew up, and the crew compartment fell into the ocean.
It was one of those times when the entire country was shocked and grieved. It was more than just failure of a dangerous mission, more than the public deaths of seven brave heroes. It was a blow to the collective psyche of this nation. Those who didn’t see it live on TV viewed it repeatedly on the news. Before the day was over, almost all of America saw the video of the Challenger disaster.
Until then, at least in the collective minds of Americans, the space program was perfect and a source of pride for all Americans. The Apollo 1 accident, which happened nineteen years earlier, killed Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, who were just as brave and heroic, Their deaths were just as tragic, but it didn’t happen on live TV.
That night, after the video of the exploding spacecraft, was played over and over on the TV and in our minds, the President spoke. Sitting at the desk in the oval office, Reagan gave an address of 650 words. It was delivered in less than five minutes, President Reagan comforted the collectively bereaved American people. He mourned the loss of the Astronauts and explained the tragedy in a way even our kids could comprehend why it happened. Reagan understood our grief and lifted our spirits.
President Reagan showed himself to be the kind of leader this country could use today. While others tried to pick up the mantle, no other President could be called the “great communicator.” The ending of his address is still embedded in the hearts of the people who saw it live.
“The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”
Below is a video and a transcript of what arguably was President Ronald Reagan’s most excellent speech:
Ladies and gentlemen, I’d planned to speak to you tonight to report on the state of the Union, but the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans. Today is a day for mourning and remembering.
Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss.
Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But we’ve never lost an astronaut in flight; we’ve never had a tragedy like this. And perhaps we’ve forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle; but they, the Challenger Seven, were aware of the dangers, but overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together.
For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, “Give me a challenge and I’ll meet it with joy.” They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us.
We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for 25 years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.
And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.
I’ve always had great faith in and respect for our space program, and what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don’t hide our space program. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all upfront and in public. That’s the way freedom is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute.
We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue.
I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA or who worked on this mission and tell them: “Your dedication and professionalism have moved and impressed us for decades. And we know of your anguish. We share it.”
There’s a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard a ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, “He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.” Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”: