Flashback: Reagan’s Challenger Disaster Speech Remains A Hopeful Message 30 Years On

Today marks the 30-year anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster that took the lives of 7 crew members including  schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.

Scheduled to deliver his State of the Union speech, President Ronald Reagan instead delivered a speech that comforted the nation who had just witnessed NASA’s tragedy. He spoke to the children in America, many of whom took time out of their school day to watch the launch. He assured Americans that the space program would carry on. And he spoke directly to our Cold War enemies in the Soviet Union, explaining how freedom means not covering up the tragedy.

Most importantly, he provided hope in a very dark hour when he spoke of the astronauts who lost their lives trying to live their dreams.

Via The Federalist:

Finally, he came back to the fallen astronauts, and made a reference no politician would likely venture today, either out of ignorance or fear of offending. January 28, 1986, happened to be the 390th anniversary of the death of Sir Francis Drake. Reagan seized on that coincidence and likened the Challenger astronauts to Drake, the great explorer of his age: “In his lifetime, the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, �?He lived on the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.’ Well today, we can say of the Challenger crew, their dedication, like Drake’s, was complete.”

He closed with this: “The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us for 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.”

That last line is from “High Flight,” a poem by John Gillespie Magee Jr, a 19-year-old American aviator killed in 1941 on a training mission in England. Magee had volunteered for the Royal Canadian Air Force after the Battle of Britain the year before, and died in a mid-air collision. Reagan’s speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, no doubt had learned the poem in school, as many Americans had. Including it in the speech was a stroke of genius.

You can read the text of Reagan’s speech below (Via NASA, HT Sean Kennedy) or watch it right now …

Explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger 
Address to the Nation, January 28, 1986

by President Ronald W. Reagan

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 up front 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 ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and an 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.”

[Note: The President spoke at 5 p.m. from the Oval Office at the White House. His address was broadcast live on nationwide radio and television.]


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