Although more than a quarter-century has passed since the crew of the space shuttle Challenger “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God,” it seems for some like yesterday and yet for others something to read about in a history book. It is fitting, however, that we pause to remember events such as this, to celebrate the lives lost, the things we have learned since, the changes that have been made, and the cautions that are sometimes beyond our control – simply part of life, part of living.
Reflect on the words of President Reagan. In his address to the nation from the Oval Office (at 5 p.m.) on the evening of January 28, 1986, perhaps he said it best:
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 25 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.
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 an 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 their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”
In the human realm, it was a time for Americans to reflect on life: how fragile it is and how we sometimes take things for granted. This disaster affected the entire nation.
Coincidentally, NASA’s three space-related fatalities occurred within days of one another but many years apart. Three astronauts were killed in the Apollo 1 launch pad fire on Jan. 27, 1967. Seven more died aboard Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986. And, the seven-member crew of Columbia perished during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003.
Each year NASA honors the 17 astronauts who were lost in the line of duty with a “Day of Remembrance” on the last Thursday of January.
The space shuttle program ran quite smoothly until the Challenger disaster of January 28, 1986. The Challenger exploded seventy-three seconds after launch because of a faulty seal in a rocket booster, killing all seven people on board. As a result, all shuttle flights were put on hold for thirty-two months while hundreds of improvements were made in their construction. The Challenger disaster forced NASA to evaluate its twenty-five-year-old space program and to prioritize safety over all else.
With your investigative reporter’s hat on, find out what changes were made by NASA for future space shuttle missions. Indentify other ways the Challenger tragedy affected a grieving nation. (Challenger Learning Centers, etc.)