Challenger explosion: How President Reagan responded
A quarter century ago, the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff. President Reagan's reaction framed the response of the nation.
It was shortly before noon on January 28, 1986. President Ronald Reagan was in the Oval Office, preparing for a traditional pre-State of the Union luncheon with television news anchors. Then, as Reagan remembered it, Vice President Bush and National Security Advisor John Poindexter strode into the room with terrible news.Skip to next paragraph
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“All they could say at the time was that they had received a flash that the space shuttle had exploded,” Reagan said later.
In that flash, US history changed. The space program had suffered its most dire tragedy yet, with its fate perhaps now hanging in the balance. And President Reagan himself – with no warning – faced a pivotal moment of his presidency.
Reagan and his aides crowded into an adjoining room to watch the unfolding tragedy on a nearby TV. A photo taken at the moment shows them, stunned, looking down at the screen – Chief of Staff Don Regan, his face twisted; Assistant to the President Pat Buchanan, arms crossed, brow furrowed; NSC chief Poindexter glum; and the president himself, jaw set, hands together. Reagan looks as if he is already preparing himself for the task to come.
On a replay, they saw the Challenger explode.
“It was a very traumatic experience,” Reagan remembered.
The lunch with anchors was canceled. But at 1 p.m., Reagan spoke with them briefly about the tragedy. He emphasized how horrible the event had been, how all America was now “more than saddened.” He noted that it was the first such in-flight explosion in space program history, and said he continued to have confidence in those who ran the program.
He said he could not get the husband and children of science teacher Christa McAuliffe, who had been on the shuttle, out of his mind. He said he could not get the families of any of the astronauts out of his mind.
Asked what he would say to the children of the nation who had seen the horrible event, he said, “Make it plain to them that life does go on and you don’t back up and quit some worthwhile endeavor because of tragedy.”
At the time of this impromptu press conference, Reagan thought the State of the Union address scheduled for that night would go on. But shortly thereafter the plan changed. Reagan would make a short address to the nation instead.
Chief of Staff Regan, when an emotional speech was in order, sometimes said, “Get that girl . . . you know, have that girl do that.”
So that’s what they did. They got that girl – speechwriter Peggy Noonan, who crafted an address for the ages.