Challenger, Reagan and a Powerful, Unplanned Speech
It’s bitterly cold in the nation’s capital for State of the Union Day. Twenty-eight years ago, on a similar morning, another second-term president was preparing to give his State of the Union address. The speech would come, but not for another week. It was postponed by a tragedy that unfolded on national television and left adults explaining to children why a beloved public school teacher would never set foot in a classroom again.
The January 28, 1986, flight of the space shuttle Challenger was always going to be like no other—even before it exploded 73 seconds after takeoff. It was the 25th launch in the program, a milestone so ho-hum that when congressman Bill Nelson spent six days orbiting the earth in the shuttle two weeks earlier, few people outside his state of Florida even noticed.
Sharon Christa McAuliffe was a whole different story. She was high school social studies teacher from Concord, N.H., and her mantra to her students was, fittingly, “Reach for the stars.”
Unaffected and likeable, she’d beat out 11,000 other applicants who had vied to become the first schoolteacher in space. The 1985 ceremony to announce the winner—all 10 finalists were present—was broadcast live from the White House, with Vice President George H.W. Bush announcing McAuliffe’s name as the winner.
“She was just so excited,” her mother, Grace Corrigan, said later. “She was thrilled to be going on the trip of a lifetime.”
Mrs. Corrigan made those comments long after the fact to my then-colleague Annie Groer. Asked what Christa was like, her mother added: “She made everybody feel kind of good about themselves. She made the schoolchildren learn as much as they could and she taught them how important they were. That was what she was striving to do.”
Instead, America’s children—and their parents and loved ones—learned a different and more painful lesson. “It was a televised event that involved the entire country,” recalled Sally Karioth, a nursing professor at Florida State University who specializes in grief counseling.
“We had this cute little curly-headed teacher in that blue astronaut outfit, and we had dragged in every kid in America to write her letters before the launch, so it was like Christmas Eve,” she added. “Then it blows up in the sky—and that’s the Grinch.”
That very morning, House Speaker Tip O’Neill had decided that the Grinch in Washington was Ronald Reagan. O’Neill had emerged from of an Oval Office meeting with the president fuming over what he considered Reagan’s high-handed attitude toward Americans who couldn’t find employment.
But then the unthinkable happened, and the two men quickly joined forces. White House officials wanted to know: Could the State of Union Address be postponed? Of course, replied aides in the speaker’s office.
Reagan himself learned of the tragedy while preparing for the traditional State of the Union lunch with network anchors. Acting press secretary Larry Speakes was giving Reagan some last-minute briefing points when members of the White House staff rushed in with news of the Challenger disaster. They turned the television on and watched with horror, just like the rest of the country.
The president would later describe January 28, 1986 as “one of the hardest days I ever spent in the Oval Office.” Meanwhile, his speechwriting staff drafted an alternate presidential address. Delivered at 5 p.m., it is still remembered as one of the rhetorical highlights of Reagan’s presidency.
“The future doesn't belong to the faint-hearted, it belongs to the brave,” he said that evening. “The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them.”
Reagan ended his 648-word homily by borrowing a passage from a World War II era sonnet:
“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.”
Three days later, the president and Nancy Reagan traveled to Houston for a memorial service for the fallen astronauts. On the plane, the First Couple sat between the widowed wives of Challenger commander Francis Scobee and crew member Michael Smith. “I found it difficult to say anything,” Reagan recalled in his autobiography. "All we could do was hug the families and try to hold back tears.”
Reagan could do more, however, and he did when it was his turn at the lectern. Eulogizing each of the seven members of the crew by name, the president gave them their proper place in history: “America itself was built by men and women such as our seven star voyagers.”
“Sometimes when we reach for the stars, we fall short,” Reagan added. “But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain. Our nation is indeed fortunate that we can still draw on immense reservoirs of courage, character, and fortitude; that we're still blessed with heroes like those of the space shuttle Challenger.”
Looking back on that ordeal, Tip O’Neill would later write that he had seen the worst of Ronald Reagan, and the best, in just a few hours’ time. “It was a trying day for all Americans," O'Neill wrote, “and Ronald Reagan spoke to our highest ideals.”