I stopped and watched the launch as I was headed out the door to work. Those Shuttle launches hasdn’t become routine yet. My admiration turned to concern, and then to shock and horror. It was a sad day.
The first question that terrible day was how the government, and especially President Reagan, would respond. Reagan postponed his State of the Union address, which had been scheduled to take place that evening, and set out to craft a speech to the nation that would especially reach the hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren who had watched the disaster on live TV in their classrooms.
Unlike President Richard Nixon, who had a pre-written speech ready in case the first Apollo moon mission failed in 1969, Reagan’s staff had to improvise from scratch, with no time for the usual process for presidential statements. The job of drafting Reagan’s remarks fell to his speechwriter Peggy Noonan. The result was a 650-word speech that took less than five minutes for Reagan to deliver, but it ranks near the top of his many memorable speeches. Reagan’s reputation as “the great communicator” seldom found its mark more fully than that day.
The closing sentence, derived from a famous World War II-era poem by Canadian Air Force pilot John Gillespie Magee, is the most recalled part of Reagan’s speech: “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.’” But the middle of the speech, where Reagan addressed himself to the schoolchildren of America about the harsh lesson of human tragedy, is where the important message is conveyed: Risk is a part of the human story. “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.” Reagan spoke to the families of all the lost astronauts over the following days; they all told him our space program must continue.
From the polarized politics of today, many Americans look back on the Reagan years with gauzy nostalgia and marvel at the moments of national unity, wondering if we can ever match it again. But the partisan divisions then were just as intense. That very morning, House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill (D-Mass) had exchanged bitter words with Reagan over the administration’s budget. Still, there was a difference, almost hard to imagine today. O’Neill was able to write later that the Challenger speech was “Reagan at his best; It was a trying day for all Americans, and Ronald Reagan spoke to our highest ideals.”
Another difference between then and today was the absence of social media to amplify misinformation and invective. There were rumors and false claims galore at the time anyway, such as that the White House had pressured NASA to launch that morning so as to coincide with Reagan’s scheduled State of the Union speech. But the slower news cycle and communications technology limited the spread of such claims. One shudders to think how the false stories would have spread with Twitter and Facebook.