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Ronald Reagan, Address to the Nation on the Challenger Disaster, January 28, 1986

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

Suggested Sequencing


Once the “space race” began between the United States and the Soviet Union, people became fascinated with the idea of traveling to outer space. Many young people in the 1960s and 1970s wanted to be astronauts when they grew up. For years, the world watched live as rockets from the Soviet Union and the United States took flight. By the 1980s, space travel seemed almost effortless and the early failures of the space program were easily forgotten. However, in January 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded right after liftoff, killing all seven crew members. The Challenger disaster was unique in several ways. It had been years since the United States had suffered a major setback in the space race. In addition, a public school teacher was on the shuttle, and many children across the country watched the explosion occur live on TV in their classrooms. Later that day, President Reagan postponed his State of the Union address and instead gave a short speech to the nation to commemorate the loss of the astronauts.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who gave this speech?
  2. What event caused the speaker to give this speech?
  3. Who was the intended audience of this speech?

Vocabulary Text
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.
dazzle(v): to deeply impress 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.
fainthearted(adj): lacking courage And I want to say something to the schoolchildren 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.
anguish(n): extremely painful suffering 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 an 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 goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”

Comprehension Questions

  1. According to Reagan, why was this situation unique?
  2. How were the members of the Challenger crew pioneers?
  3. What did Reagan say to the school children watching?
  4. Why did Reagan make a point of saying, “We don’t hide our space program”?
  5. Why did Reagan include the story about Sir Francis Drake?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. Many people witnessed the explosion of the Challenger live on TV. What role has digital media like photos and videos played in documenting tragedies? How has this affected how people relate to past tragedies that they may not have witnessed in person?
  2. Why did Reagan decide to postpone the State of the Union address?

Explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger Address to the Nation

Address to the Nation on the Challenger Disaster (video clip)