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Challenger Tragedy: Reagan's Speech

By Marty McDowell/NASA

According to White House spokesman Larry Speakes, Vice President George Bush and national security adviser John Poindexter notified President Reagan of the explosion during a meeting with top aides. The president ended the meeting and gathered around a White House television with aides to watch news reports. "The president stood there in almost stunned silence as he watched the television," Speakes said. President Reagan was scheduled to give a televised State of the Union speech on the night of January 28, 1986. Instead, Reagan spoke to a grieving nation about the Challenger tragedy. In preparing the official White House response, the staff prepared a memo which outlined what President Johnson had done in the aftermath of the Apollo 1 tragedy in 19 years earlier. Here is the text of the televised speech he made from the Oval Office.

Address to the Nation

"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 Jarvis, 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 meet 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 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.

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 discovery. It's all part 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 us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them...


President Reagan and his advisors watching a replay of the Challenger explosion from the White House on January 28, 1986.


NARA photo


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 hide 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 woman 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 a 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 the journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God."

Source: NASA.


Share Your Memories!

What do you remember about Reagan's Challenger Speech? Have you any compelling stories to share? Share your stories with the world! (We print the best stories right here!)

Your Memories Shared!

"I am a retired Delta Air Lines Captain with 42 years of flying experience - 36 yrs. with Delta - 28 yrs. as captain. I state that to inform that I am not a novice to aviation. I read the entire accident report with great interest. I recall, quite vividly the entire launch and the aftermath. I had video taped the launch so as to view it later. That evening, President Reagan was to give his State of The Union address to Congress. He (Reagan) and the White House Staff were very excited about having the shuttle in space so the President could talk to them during his address. There is NO doubt about the fact that Thiokol engineers told NASA NOT to launch the vehicle due to, among other things, the low ambient air temperature. NOTE: that is a fact! The senior White House staff member who was on duty overrode that Thiokol decision and told NASA to get that thing in the air (paraphrasing) so Reagan could do his piece that night. I heard who that was only once on the TV coverage and sadly did not note it at the time. My videotape omits the after-coverage. It was NEVER mentioned again and covered up in a hurry. I would really like to know who that was and so would a lot of other folks. It has been put under the rug. I have tried to get copies of the White House duty roster for that day, but of course they are now long gone - MAYBE. Whoever that jerk in the White House was is the one who is TOTALLY responsible for that shuttle accident. FIND OUT - they are likely dead by now."

--Bob Miller

"Flowery words from the sob that sent them up. Try to find a copy of the ORIGINAL State of the Union address. It has been erased from history."


"I still have much dislike for Dan Rather who introduced President Reagan's wonderful speech that day. Rather must have had an advance copy of the Presidents message because he stepped on the punch line "slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God" and said those exact words before saying, "ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States". Rather, a known Republican hater couldn't resist taking a cheap shot even on one of the most somber days in our nations history. I won't forget that day."

"Lo, some twenty-seven later I reread President Reagan's January 28, 1986 speech honoring the astronauts who perished in the Challenger disaster was struck by its elegance, especially the final thought, "...slipped the surly bonds of earth" to touch ... the face of God." At the same time I was inflamed by the ruthless dishonesty in plagiarizing John Magee's heartbreaking final words in High Flight, a poem he crafted prior to his death in the Battle of Britain in 1941 describing the essence of flight,

"Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings...
"And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God."

The closing line coopted without attribution by Reagan's spechwriter.

The act is particularly heinous in view of the fact that another phrase, "He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried." in the preceding paragraph was specifically attributed to Sir Francis Drake's biographer.

Homespun, pedantic, superficial and prosaic "Take down this wall," he was. Erudite, compassionate, genuine and poetic, he was not."

--Jack Thomspon

Space References (Books):
Dickinson, Terence. Nightwatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe. Firefly Books, 1998.
Greene, Brian. Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory. Vintage, 2000.
Hawking, Stephen. Illustrated Brief History of Time, Updated and Expanded Edition. Bantam, 1996.
Hawking, Stephen. Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe. New Millenium, 2002.
Hawking, Stephen. The Universe in a Nutshell. Bantam, 2001.
Kaku, Michio. Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps and the Tenth Dimension.
Kranz, Gene. Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond. Berkley Pub Group, 2001.
Sagan, Carl; Druyan, Ann. Comet, Revised Edition. Ballantine, 1997
Sagan, Carl. Cosmos, Reissue Edition. Ballantine, 1993
Sagan, Carl. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. Ballantine, 1997

Space References (Videos):
Cosmos. PBS, 2000.
Stephen Hawking's Universe. PBS, 1997.
Hyperspace. BBC, 2002.
Life Beyond Earth PBS, 1999.
The Planets
. BBC, 1999.
Understanding The Universe. A&E, 1996.



President Reagan delivering his speech on the Challenger tragedy on January 28, 1986.

Courtesy of NARA

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