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.

By , Staff writer

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    President Reagan and his staff, like most Americans, were glued to their television sets in the wake of the Challenger explosion, waiting for news and watching replays of the disaster. (left to right) Ronald Reagan, James Poindexter, Pat Buchanan, Alfred Kingon, Don Regan, Edward Djerejian
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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.

“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.

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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.

Noonan had been working as a CBS producer in New York, writing conservative-tinged commentary for Dan Rather, an anchor many considered a liberal, when she was invited to join the White House. She scandalized the staff at first by showing up late for work every day – or at least late by Washington standards. She’d come in at 9 a.m. or so, after reading the papers.

But she wrote great speeches, and her responsibilities grew. For the Challenger address, she did what good speechwriters do – she took Reagan’s own emotions, as expressed in his press conference, honed them, and put them in literate phrases that the president could still comfortably say.

Noonan later said she had two aims in the speech. One was to comfort those in the nation who were confused and frightened by the events of the day.

“I kind of figured the entire nation had seen an auto accident, you know?” said Noonan in an exit interview, when she left the White House a few months later.

The other aim was to reiterate that the space program would continue. The US would not shrink from continuing manned flight to the heavens.

“It’s always very important to put these things in context . . . and say terrible things happen to pioneers, but the trek does not stop here,” said Noonan.

The result was short, only about 650 words. The speech was routed to the NSC for their remarks, and, inexplicably, an NSC staffer tried to change some of Noonan’s phrases – editing out the assertion that Reagan and his wife were “pained to the core” by the explosion, for example.

Reagan simply ignored that change, and used the “pained” phrase anyway. He knew a good script when he saw it.

That night, the president spoke from the Oval Office, sitting at his desk. First, he tried to bind the nation into a whole. “We mourn their loss as a nation together,” he said of the Challenger astronauts.

He acknowledged the grief of the families. For children, he emphasized that pain and loss can be part of exploration.

“The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave,” he said.

He reiterated his support for the space program, insisting that nothing that had happened to the Challenger diminished its achievements. (This was long prior to the discovery that a foreseen event, frozen “O” rings, caused the explosion.)

“There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews, and, yes . . . more teachers in space,” said Reagan.

He finished by quoting from a poem much beloved by aviators, “High Flight,” written by John McGee Jr., an American who flew for the Royal Canadian Air Force in World War II and was killed in a mid-air collision.

The Challenger astronauts had “waved goobye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God,’ ” concluded Reagan.

The speech took four minutes. Today it’s widely considered one of the finest examples of a president serving one of their most important duties: the definer of national events, the interpreter-in-chief.

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