The Challenger Tragedy and President Reagan’s Speech

by Geoff on January 28, 2014

“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.”

President Reagan Challenger SpeechEarly in the evening of January 28, 1986, President Ronald Reagan began an address to the nation with those words. The President had planned to address congress and the nation that night regarding the State of the Union. However, that address was postponed. It remains the only time the State of the Union address has been postponed.

Earlier that day, the Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off from Kennedy Space Center, only to break apart 73 seconds later, resulting in the loss of its seven person crew: Greg Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Mike Smith, and Dick Scobee.

Space Shuttle Challenger CrewNot since the 1967 Apollo 1 tragedy had the nation lost astronauts in a spacecraft disaster. Reagan’s address was comforting to a shocked and grieving nation. Yet, it was also inspiring. President Reagan addressed the grief the nation was feeling but also assured them that exploration would continue. In a matter of fact style, Reagan gave the address the nation needed. Through simple words coupled with eloquent prose and poetry, the great communicator summed up the feelings of a mourning nation and renewed a commitment to explore in spite of exploration’s hardships. In his words, “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.”

Memorial tree for Christa McAuliffe at Johnson Space Center

And so we have. With manned missions to lower earth orbit and unmanned missions extending great distances from our planet, we have explored. In the last year, we’ve marked 10 years of continuous operation on Mars by a rover and 15 years since the launch of the first segment of the International Space Station. In 2011, we retired the Space Shuttle, but the remaining orbiters are in museums where they inspire every day. NASA and multiple private companies are hard at work designing and building the next American spacecraft that will carry humans to orbit and beyond.

But the seven lives lost on January 28, 1986, are more than a notation in a timeline of human exploration. These astronauts inspired a nation not only through their sacrifice, but through their courage, their vision, and their commitment to a nation built on that shared premise and dream of exploration.

President Reagan’s speech that evening is remarkable. I watch it every year on January 28, and I encourage you to do the same today.

Transcript of President Reagan’s speech
AP: Questions and answers about the State of the Union

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