How Ronald Reagan explained the Challenger disaster to the world: ‘It’s all part of taking a chance’

Images from Jan. 28, 1986, are seared into the memories of former schoolchildren, teachers, parents, and pretty much any American now older than 30 – the Challenger space shuttle, meant to carry school teacher Christa McAuliffe into orbit, reduced to a snaky tunnel of smoke in the sky near Cape Canaveral.

In the years that followed, a lot would come out about a disaster watched in countless classrooms across the nation: about faulty O-rings, about dangerously cold temperatures, and about how five crewmen, an engineer and a New Hampshire teacher meant to represent NASA in its finest hour became the space agency’s first in-flight fatalities.

But even before the smoke cleared 30 years ago Thursday, one man just as shocked as everyone else by the tragedy – President Ronald Reagan – had the unenviable job of explaining it to the country. On a day, no less, that he was to be the center of a ritual marked on every commander-in-chief’s calendar since the Woodrow Wilson administration: the State of the Union address.

“We all then headed for a TV & saw the explosion re-played,” Reagan, who heard news of the explosion while prepping for a pre-SOTU luncheon with TV anchors, wrote in his diary. “From then on there was only [one] subject – the death of the 6 crew & 1 passenger – Mrs. McAuliffe, the teacher who had won the right to make the flight. There is no way to describe our shock & horror.”

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There was no question: The State of the Union, for the first time in modern history, would be scuttled. But what was there to say in the face of such, well, shock and horror? Asked how children would react, Reagan knew he had to “make it plain to them that life does go on and you don’t back up and quit some worthwhile endeavor because of tragedy,” he said. But can such terrible things be made plain – even by a president lauded for his public speaking?

Reagan’s team decided to call in a relatively unknown speechwriter best known for coming in late to the office after reading the day’s papers: Peggy Noonan. Chief of Staff Donald Regan, when an emotional speech was in order, sometimes said, ‘Get that girl . . . you know, have that girl do that,'” as the Christian Science Monitor reported.

Though “that girl” would go on to pen some of the most famous phrases uttered by presidents in the 1980s – among them, President George Herbert Walker Bush’s “thousand points of light” – and to a career as a renowned Wall Street Journal columnist, Noonan was then just “a little schmagoogie in an office in the Old Executive Office Building,” as she put it last year. And this speech was quite the burden to bear.

“I kind of figured the entire nation had seen an auto accident, you know?” Noonan later said. As she said last year: “The president is going to have to do a speech that is aimed at those who are 8 years old, and those who are 18, and those who are 80 without patronizing anybody.”

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What Noonan came up with on the fly became the stuff of legend. In the oeuvre of a telegenic former showman known for his way with crowds, the Challenger speech is rivaled only by Reagan’s prescient “Tear down this wall!” address, delivered in Berlin just two years before the Berlin Wall came down.

At 5 p.m., addressing the nation less than six hours after the explosion, Reagan started out simply.

“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,” he said. “Today is a day for mourning and remembering.”

It was necessary to remember the dead — and Reagan did, calling out the names of Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis and McAuliffe. But then he moved on to a bigger theme.

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“We’ve grown used to wonders in this century,” he said. “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.”

But this was no “malaise” speech about the limits of American might – that line had gone out with President Carter in 1980. Though the Challenger was a tragedy, it was a tragedy that only further demonstrated how important it was to keep exploring the unknown. And no one should be discouraged, least of all children.

“I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff,” Reagan said. “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.”

This was lofty rhetoric – but the speech had to pack a geopolitical punch, too. There was a Cold War on. Would the Russians say that the U.S. space program was now failing? Would they accuse NASA of covering up some fatal flaw in the shuttle’s design, or some ulterior motive in launching McAuliffe into space in the first place?

Reagan got around to that, too.

“We don’t hide our space program,” he said. “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.”

Then came Reagan’s – that is, Noonan’s – kicker: a poem.

“The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives,” Reagan said. “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.'”

The floral language — “surly bonds,” “face of God” – was from “High Flight,” a work by John Gillespie Magee, an American airman who died at 19 in an in-flight collision while serving in World War II. It reads, in part:

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

Of sun-split clouds — and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of … “

“It just came to me,” Noonan said last year. “I just remembered it from seventh grade.”

Though Reagan’s speech beckoned his listeners heavenward, he was, at first, let down by it. Noonan couldn’t know it, but the president was familiar with “High Flight” – it was once emblazoned on a plaque outside his daughter Patti’s grade school. But did a doomed teenager’s 40-year-old musings really rise to the occasion?

“Reagan did not feel that the speech had met the moment,” Noonan said. “There’s nothing you can say that could meet a moment that was that painful to the American people.”

In this, the Great Communicator was proved wrong. Accolades for the speech soon poured in. House Speaker Tip O’Neill, D, was known for working with Reagan rather than against him, but even his compliments were over the top.

“In O’Neill’s opinion, Ronald Reagan, with a prepared text, was simply the best public speaker he’d ever known, and that included FDR and Jack Kennedy,” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, O’Neill’s chief of staff during much of the Reagan administration, later wrote. “It was a seasoned man’s assessment. In the case of the Challenger speech, he’d found himself personally moved and personally grateful, and, for Tip O’Neill, that meant a lot.”

Noonan said the quick turnaround time for the speech proved a blessing. There was no time for meddling — for fussy negotiation over particular turns of phrase by meddling staffers eager to put their stamp on history. There was only a great speech, a great speaker and a TV camera.

“There was no time to ruin it,” Noonan said. “. . . The staffing process can kill a speech.”

Then came the greatest stamp of approval: Reagan’s address also got a A-plus from the president’s pal, Frank Sinatra. And when the Chairman of the Board said something worked, you knew it worked.

“Frank Sinatra called me, and Frank Sinatra didn’t call me after every speech, let me tell ya,” Noonan said Reagan told her. She added: “Reagan came up in show business, and he knew when something landed.”