While I’m borrowing from the Beatles and Sgt. Pepper, this is much more somber.
Sometimes in life you have those “I remember where I was when I found out about (blank)” moments. One of mine was walking into the dining area for lunch in Scott Hall, Miami University, on a Tuesday in January of 1986, and finding they had the overhead radio on. I never recalled that before, but it was playing that day.
That was the day that the seven members of the space shuttle Challenger met their demise after an ill-fated 73 second flight. Today it’s been 20 years since that event.
A lot has changed at NASA in the two decades since this happened, and many people question the validity of the space program. It’s understood that the space shuttle program is likely on its last legs – basically it survives as a means of getting items to the International Space Station. NASA is currently a mission in flux, as some want to continue the planetary expedition it’s known for and others would like to see a successor to the space shuttle be built. Further, private companies have moved into the shuttle market as the X Prize offered for a reusable spacecraft was won in 2004.
But at the time the space shuttles were something in which America took pride and joy. In 1986, people were beginning to see space travel as becoming commonplace, as 15 shuttle flights were scheduled for that year. While the Apollo flights were huge news and TV networks were wall-to-wall on them (this in the day before cable news), after the first few shuttle flights it was just expected for them to complete their appointed missions and land safely. The Challenger never did.
Eventually the tragedy was blamed on gasketing on the shuttle that lost its flexibility. At the time Florida was in the midst of a cold snap.
In place of the scheduled State of the Union address that night, President Reagan made some of his best remarks:
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 school children 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 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 their journey and waved good-bye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”
A few years ago, we lost another shuttle crew as they were only minutes from landing. And as alluded to in President Reagan’s remarks, NASA has lost good astronauts before. But on that chilly January day in 1986, America lost a little piece of its innocence and a bit of its swagger. While Americans went from flight to moon landing in just 66 years, we realized space wasn’t going to be as easy to conquer as we were led to believe.