Reagan Challenger Speech: a poetic eulogy

By Chris McCarthy

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.

President Ronald Reagan, 28 January 1986

In Season 2 of revered US television drama The West Wing, a satellite on the way to Mars, Galileo V, experiences a technical malfunction and is unable to transmit the much anticipated images of the red planet back to NASA. The disappointment among senior White House staff and the President is palpable. When Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn, is challenged on why the country should spend so much money exploring Mars when they’ve already been to the moon, his counter is a robust defense of the pioneering spirit of humankind:

Because it’s next. Because we came out of the cave and looked over the hill and saw fire; and we crossed the ocean; and we pioneered the West and we took to the sky. The history of man is on a timeline of exploration and that is what’s next.

President Reagan drew on the same theme of human endeavour when addressing the nation on 28 January 1986 after the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds after take-off killing all seven crew members. Until that day the US had never lost an astronaut in flight though three died in 1967 when a fire broke out on Apollo I and Apollo 13 suffered a near-disaster in 1970 when an oxygen tank exploded severely damaging the spacecraft resulting in what was coined a “successful failure”.

We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for twenty-five 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.

The US space program has been a great source of pride to Americans since beginning in the late 1950s, a potently visible manifestation of their ‘exceptionalism’. For several decades the battle for supremacy in space had also served a broader ideological purpose; a demonstration of American technological and financial might over the USSR whose program was more advanced in the early 1960s, a symbolic victory for freedom and liberty.

We don’t hide out 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.

The loosely veiled jab at the Soviet Union was a brief aside, however, to the core of Reagan’s speech, which blended an unequivocal commitment to future space exploration with national and personal mourning. The Great Communicator drew Americans from east to west, north to south, in communal grieving, “we mourn their loss as a nation together,” and paid special tribute to those working at NASA, “we know of your anguish. We share it.” This was a moment for national solidarity.

People will often look for the rhyme or reason in tragedy, some logic that will dull the pain or clear the confusion. Rarely is that explanation forthcoming or satisfactory and Reagan was keen to stress as such to schoolchildren across the country watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s take-off:

I know it’s hard to understand but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all party of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons.

What helped elevate this speech above the merely functional and formulaic was the personalisation; the roll-call of the names of all seven crew members that recognised their ultimate contribution* rather than a homogenised mass of nameless astronauts and the grief the disaster had affected upon Reagan and his wife, “Nancy and I are pained to the core by this tragedy.”

To be able to transcend the barrier of a television screen viewed by millions or address a room of thousands and provide a personal connection between speaker and listener is a rare talent possessed by few orators; Reagan was among them and few have matched the poignancy of his closing remarks which incorporated phrases from a poem written by a young American pilot in World War II:

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.”

In 652 words and little over four minutes, Reagan delivered one of history’s finest commemorative speeches: Leading the nation in mourning while inviting them to glimpse his deep personal pain; helping to find meaning for those never exposed to such dramatic tragedy; and acknowledging that the ultimate sacrifice of the “daring and brave” was part of the narrative of human discovery and America’s pioneering spirit.

*Tony Blair introduced a similar device to Prime Minister’s Questions during the Iraq War that endures today, naming any military personnel killed in service since he last addressed the House of Common.

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