Speeches that Made History: Ronald Reagan Comforts a Nation in Mourning

by Derrick G. Jeter

On January 28, 1986, I was in my final year at the University of Texas at Austin. Outside of a classroom in the Communication’s building, waiting for my next class, I sat in “the pit”—a depression in the floor where four televisions were set up on four different sides of a central post. The televisions in the pit were usually tuned to four different soup operas, but on that day a couple of the TVs were switched to the national coverage of the launch of the space shuttle Challenger, which was schedule to liftoff that morning. As soon as the countdown started, I started to countdown in my head: “10, 9, 8, 7 . . . 3, 2, 1. We have liftoff.” The camera followed the Challenger through the billowing smoke, up into a clear blue sky. As the shuttle rumbled, spitting fire, the command and reply came: “Go with throttle up.
And then there was an explosion. The camera cut to the mother and father of Christa McAuliffe, who at first expressed bewilderment, but then a second or two later horror. They had just witnessed the death of their daughter.
McAuliffe was a school teacher from Concord, New Hampshire and the first teacher scheduled to broadcast, from the space, to American schoolchildren two lessons about space exploration. She wasn’t a professional astronaut; she was a teacher. But in an effort to ignite the study of math and science among America’s youth, NASA developed the “Teacher in Space” program. McAuliffee was the first and became the darling of the media, which agreed to carry the launch live so thousands of children could see “their” teacher become an astronaut.
Ronald Reagan, on that very same morning, sat in the Oval Office preparing to meet network anchors to discuss that evening’s State of the Union Address. Vice President George H. W. Bush and National Security Advisor Admiral John Poindexter entered and told the president that the space shuttle had exploded. Turning on the television, Reagan watched the replay: “Roger, go with throttle up.” And then the Challenger disappeared in the Florida sky.
At the same moment, sitting in her office next door to the White House, in the Old Executive Office Building, Peggy Noonan was talking on the phone when she saw the explosion. Within a matter of moments she would be at her computer writing a speech for the president.
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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 Jarivs, 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 met 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 discover. It’s all apart 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 up 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 hid 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 women 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.”
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The structure of the speech is from notes taken at a meeting the president had with reporters just minutes after the tragedy. Noonan filled in the details, but the words and emotions are pure Reagan.
Reagan made a passing reference to the January 27, 1961, fire onboard the Apollo 1, while it sat on the launch pad, in which Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee were killed. But up until the Challenger explosion America had never lost an astronaut in flight. The loss of the Challenger crew was especially poignant because, for the first time in NASA’s history, a civilian was flying into space. Since the Challenger disaster, we have had one more inflight explosion. On February 1, 2003, the shuttle Columbia disintegrated in flames over Texas, heading for its landing at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. As with the Challenger, the Columbia tragedy took seven lives: Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, Ilan Ramon, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, and Laurel Clark.
President Reagan’s promise not withstanding, no civilian has ever again flown on a shuttle.
The concluding line of the speech is from a poem written by John Gillespie Magee, an American flying for the Royal Canadian Air Force in War World II, titled “High Flight.” Reagan knew well the poem from his Hollywood days.