On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its takeoff from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and millions of Americans, including schoolchildren, watched it on live television as it happened. It was one of those national moments where people still ask “Where were you when you saw or heard about the Challenger?”
I certainly remember. I was in a Denver conference room with clients when a co-worker burst in with a breathless, incredulous report of the disaster. I don’t remember much about the rest of the meeting, which I’m sure didn’t last much longer. But I remember being glued to a television screen for the rest of the day as video of the doomed flight was endlessly replayed while anchors and talking heads struggled to explain what happened.
Seven lives were lost that day: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnick, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McCauliffe. The name perhaps most remembered by Americans is McCauliffe’s, a 37-year-old social studies teacher from New Hampshire who had won the right to join the Challenger crew by applying to NASA’s Teacher in Space Project.
President Ronald Reagan quickly abandoned any idea of delivering his scheduled State of the Union address that evening; instead he addressed the nation directly via a television broadcast mere hours after the tragedy.
Tragedies such as the Challenger disaster tug at our heartstrings. They emerge easily from our memories. And not only do we remember the Challenger, but also the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003, as well as the 1967 Apollo 1 fire.
There’s something unique about America’s pride in our space program, and we gobble up stories and movies of the larger-than-life heroes who risk all to push the envelope of man’s knowledge about space. The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, Apollo 18, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Hidden Figures are but a few films from this genre.
Yes, we love heroes and celebrate their successes and mourn their deaths. The recent untimely death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant and the public mourning that followed underscores this truism.
Back to President Reagan’s speech to the nation on the evening of the Challenger disaster. Peggy Noonan, whose ability and renown as a speechwriter and Wall Street Journal columnist is well-known to millions of Americans these days, was not well known in 1986 even at the White House in which she worked. Reagan’s Chief of Staff, Donald Regan, was known to have said on one or more occasions where an emotional speech was appropriate, “Get that girl … you know, have that girl do that.” Noonan was indeed the chosen speechwriter for Reagan’s address to the nation.
His speech that evening was relatively short, a mere 650 words that took four minutes to deliver. But it received accolades. Perhaps it was Noonan’s ending, where she inserted quotes from a poem she had learned in the seventh grade: “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.’”