On This Day in History… January 28, 1986 25th Anniversary of the Challenger Disaster


By Bonnie K. Goodman

Ms. Goodman is the Editor of History Musings. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies from McGill University, and has done graduate work in history at Concordia University.


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

Bill Fitzpatrick / Courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Library


    On this day in history… January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff from Cape Canaveral in Texas, all seven of its crew members were killed. School children around the nation were watching the launch’s telecast live to witness the send off of the first schoolteacher sent to space Christa McAuliffe, who was among the deceased crewmembers.
    On that afternoon instead of giving his State of the Union Address in the evening President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation about the Challenger Disaster memorably ending his speech with words; “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 the journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”

  • The horror dawned slowly: …One of the smaller solid rocket boosters could be seen looping out and back in toward the shuttle, trailing smoke. Other trails appeared.
    “Obviously. . . a major malfunction. . . has occurred,” the voice of Mission Control, Steve Nesbitt, who normally speaks crisply, said slowly over the NASA public address system.
    “They’re coming back,” said Reader’s Digest writer Malcolm McConnell, who has covered 10 launches. He and several other reporters started running, planning to make their way to the landing strip several miles away where the shuttle was to return in an emergency. There were confused shouts, swearing, a short scream.
    Then, still looking up, McConnell sat back down. “Where are they?” someone asked. “Dead,” he answered flatly. “We’ve lost ’em, God bless ’em.”
    Phrases drifted down from Mission Control. “. . . Appeared nominal through engine throttle-back . . . apparent explosion. . . . Tracking crews have reported that the vehicle had exploded.”
    Shortly, there was the announcement that an “impact point” had been located in the ocean…. – Washington Post Archives, 1-29-86
  • President insists space program go forward, delays State of Union address: Sharing a nation’s shock over the explosion of the Challenger, President Reagan has voiced his deep sorrow to the families of those who were aboard the space shuttle. But he also stressed the importance of going forward with space exploration. Because of the tragic event yesterday, the President after consulting with leaders of Congress postponed his State of the Union address until next Tuesday. He also sent Vice-President George Bush to Cape Canaveral’s Kennedy Space Center to convey his concern for the families of those aboard the space shuttle.
    Mr. Reagan instructed acting NASA director Bill Graham to fly to Cape Canaveral with the Vice President to begin probing the cause of the explosion and and then to proceed with the space program. “These people were dedicated to the exploration of space,” the President stated. “We could do no more to honor them, these courageous Americans, than to go forward with the program.”
    The President was having an Oval Office meeting with top aides when he learned that the shuttle had blown up. He stood in “stunned silence” as he watched a televised replay of the disaster, said White House spokesman Larry Speakes.
    “It’s a terrible thing,” Mr. Reagan told TV reporters. “I just can’t get out of my mind her husband, her chidren, as well as the families of the others on board.”
    Asked if he felt special remorse because of his decision to send a teacher into space, Mr. Reagan replied that all those aboard the Challenger were citizens. “I don’t think there’s anybody who’s been on there who’s not a volunteer,” he commented. “They were all aware of the dangers and risks.”… – Christian Science Monitor Archives, 1-29-86


  • Challenger: 25 years later, a still painful wound: For many, no single word evokes as much pain. Challenger.
    A quarter-century later, images of the exploding space shuttle still signify all that can go wrong with technology and the sharpest minds. The accident on Jan. 28, 1986 — a scant 73 seconds into flight, nine miles above the Atlantic for all to see — remains NASA’s most visible failure.
    It was the world’s first high-tech catastrophe to unfold on live TV. Adding to the anguish was the young audience: School children everywhere tuned in that morning to watch the launch of the first schoolteacher and ordinary citizen bound for space, Christa McAuliffe.
    She never made it.
    McAuliffe and six others on board perished as the cameras rolled, victims of stiff O-ring seals and feeble bureaucratic decisions.
    It was, as one grief and trauma expert recalls, “the beginning of the age when the whole world knew what happened as it happened.”… – Boston Herald, 1-28-11
  • Challenger 25th anniversary: Memories of the day: On a bright blue morning in Florida in 1986, the Challenger shuttle launched into space. Twenty-eight years had passed since NASA had first formed. Shuttle flights had become routine. What set this one apart was the diversity of the crew and the addition of the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe. The shuttle took off buoyed by hope and pride, watched by a nation enamored with the great U.S. space program and by schoolchildren filling classrooms early in the morning.
    Seventy-three seconds later, the shuttle disappeared into an orange and white cloud, and the nation stood in shock and disbelief.
    President Ronald Reagan, in a moving broadcast to the nation that afternoon, paraphrased a sonnet written by John Gillespie Magee, a young American airman killed in World War II saying the crew “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”… – WaPo, 1-28-11
egypt riots

This 1986 photo shows the crew of the space shuttle Challenger, from left, Ellison Onizuka, Mike Smith, Christa McAuliffe, Dick Scobee, Greg Jarvis, Ron McNair and Judy Resnick. (AP Photo/NASA)

  • 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.
    “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…. – CS Monitor, 1-28-11
  • Remembering space shuttle Challenger: Five ways it changed spaceflight: Twenty-five years ago Friday, the space shuttle Challenger came to a tragic end, exploding on liftoff and claiming the lives of seven astronauts. We remember the loss of the Challenger and its crew, yet we often forget the contributions it made to space exploration.
    The night of the disaster, President Ronald Reagan told the nation: “The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.” Here are five ways the Challenger pushed spaceflight forward…. – CS Monitor, 1-28-11
  • Challenger Explosion: Last Words and Video: NASA recently honored the Challenger mission, which famously exploded and disintegrated on January 28, 1986, killing all seven crew members. The space organization has released the final words and transcript of the Challenger mission by way of its operational recorder voice tape. The following are the last recorded words of Commander Francis R.Scobee, Pilot Michael J. Smith, Mission Specialist 1 Ellison S. Onizuka, and Mission Specialist 2 Judith A. Resnik. Also on the mission were Mission Specialist 3 Ronald E. McNair, Payload Specialist Gregory B. Jarvis and civilian Christa McAuliffe, who won the “Teacher In Space” contest…. – International Business Times, 1-28-11


  • Ronald Reagan: Speech on the Challenger Disaster, January 28, 1986: 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 twenty-five 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 member of the Challenger crew, were pioneers…. – Teaching American History
  • Ronald Reagan: Address to the Nation on the Explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, January 28, 1986: The sight of the Challenger exploding is seared into each of our minds. A few days after the explosion, I attended a memorial service in Houston for the crew. I stood next to Jane Smith, the wife of Michael Smith, one of the crewmen on the Challenger. She gave me a most remarkable gift, a three-by-five card that her husband had written before the flight and left on the bedroom dresser. He wrote about the importance of their mission. It was such a personal, generous gift that I didn’t feel right about keeping it. I made a copy and gave her back the original. I’ll never forget her generosity in offering me that part of her husband’s final days… – Ronald Reagan Library
  • Three days later, President Reagan delivered the following remarks at a memorial service held in Houston following the Challenger disaster, Jan. 31, 1986: We come together today to mourn the loss of seven brave Americans, to share the grief we all feel and, perhaps in that sharing, to find the strength to bear our sorrow and the courage to look for the seeds of hope.
    Our nation’s loss is first a profound personal loss to the family and the friends and loved ones of our shuttle astronauts. To those they have left behind – the mothers, the fathers, the husbands and wives, brothers, sisters, and yes, especially the children – all of America stands beside you in your time of sorrow.
    What we say today is only an inadequate expression of what we carry in our hearts. Words pale in the shadow of grief; they seem insufficient even to measure the brave sacrifice of those you loved and we so admired. Their truest testimony will not be in the words we speak, but in the way they led their lives and in the way they lost those lives – with dedication, honor and an unquenchable desire to explore this mysterious and beautiful universe.
    The best we can do is remember our seven astronauts – our ChallengerSeven – remember them as they lived, bringing life and love and joy to those who knew them and pride to a nation.
    They came from all parts of this great country – from South Carolina to Washington State; Ohio to Mohawk, New York; Hawaii to North Carolina to Concord, New Hampshire. They were so different, yet in their mission, their quest, they held so much in common…. – Teaching American History
  • President Obama Honors Astronauts Lost in Space Exploration: “We pause to reflect on the tragic loss of the Apollo 1 crew, those who boarded the space shuttle Challenger in search of a brighter future, and the brave souls who perished on the space shuttle Columbia. Through triumph and tragedy, each of us has benefited from their courage and devotion, and we honor their memory by dedicating ourselves to a better tomorrow.”


  • Gil Troy in Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented The 1980s: During one of his presidency’s most searing moments, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986, killing all seven crew members including the teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe, Reagan’s eloquent speech reassured Americans. Yet his choice of words was instructive. In 1962 John F. Kennedy dreamed about a man on the moon continuing the quest for scientific knowledge. When George W. Bush in 2003 would eulogize the shuttle Columbia astronauts, he would combine nationalism and theology, praising their “idealism,” and soothing with Isaiah’s words that “Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.” Reagan’s speech was more individualistic, focusing on the astronauts as explorers, hailing their “daring” and “dedication.”
  • Kurt Ritter in Ronald Reagan: The Great Communicator: Reagan’s delivery openly communicated his personal grief as he addressed the nation following the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in January 1986. Kathleen Hall Jamieson has noted that Reagan’s “intimate conversational style” constituted “an unprecedented level of self-disclosure on television.” It was not without effect, Jamieson noted: “His moments of self-revelation invite us to conclude that we know him and like him.”
  • J. Jeffery Auer in Reagan and Public Discourse in America: As Anthony Lewis wrote after the 1986 Challenger explosion, “People waited: Not for an answer . . . but for words of consolation. They came, with rare grace, from President Reagan . . . in a few words, simple and direct . . . he expressed our inchoate feelings. He was touching without being mawkish. He was dignified. Listening to Mr. Reagan, I thought I understood better than ever before the mystery of his enormous popularity as President. . . . the main reason for public affection lies, as always, in Mr. Reagan’s personality and his ability to communicate it. . . . In cold print the next day his words seemed flat. But when he spoke, there was tangible emotion in them, resonating with his listeners.”
  • Michael Schaller in Reckoning with Reagan: America and Its President in the 1980s: Reagan had an instinctive ability to reassure and soothe the feelings of grieving Americans in the aftermath of tragedy. For example, following the disastrous explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in January 1986, the president’s moving eulogy, written by Peggy Noonan, stressed the theme of renewal. The astronauts had “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.” A grateful nation would reach out for new goals, and even greater achievements in order to commemorate “our seven Challenger heros.”
  • Lou Cannon in President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime: Although some of the participants in this meeting were more than willing to talk about what had happened, the story of the Reagan-O’Neill confrontation was completely overshadowed by the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger later in the day. O’Neill said subsequently that he had seen “Reagan at his worst” in the Oval Office and “Reagan at his best” in his nationally televised speech after the Challenger tragedy. “It was a trying day for all Americans, and Ronald Reagan spoke to our highest ideals,” O’Neill wrote.
  • Davis W. Houck & Amos Kiewe in Actor, Ideologue, Politician: The Public Speeches of Ronald Reagan: The scheduled 1986 State of the Union Address was delayed due to an unforeseen event. In his address to the nation on the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986, Reagan eulogized the Challenger’s crew. Anticipating the shock of the disaster, which was televised live to many whose exhilaration had been replaced by horror, Reagan understood his role as a comforter who had to console the nation as well as to contextualize the event. Twenty-five years of space exploration had dazzled the nation, he stated, but we must not forget that the Challenger’s crew were still pioneers, brave spirits who wished to pull us into the future. To further soothe the pain, Reagan reminded America that the visibility of the nation’s space program was part of the American belief in freedom, unlike the Soviets who hid disasters out of fear of exposure. America was thus superior to Reagan’s old nemesis, the Soviet Union, even in times of a domestic disaster.
  • Mary E. Stuckey: Slipping the Surly Bonds: Reagan’s Challenger Address (Library of Presidential Rhetoric): Millions of Americans, including hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, watched in horror as the Challenger shuttle capsule exploded on live television on January 28, 1986. Coupled with that awful image in Americans’ memory is the face of President Ronald Reagan addressing the public hours later with words that spoke to the nation’s shock and mourning. Focusing on the text of Reagan’s speech, author Mary Stuckey shows how President Reagan’s reputation as “the Great Communicator” adds significance to our understanding of his rhetoric on one of the most momentous occasions of his administration. – Amazon.com
  • Colin Burgess in Teacher in Space: Christa McAuliffe and the Challenger Legacy: Two days after the Challenger tragedy President Ronald Reagan gave a moving testimony at a memorial service for the seven astronauts at Johnson Space Center’s central mall. In his speech he recalled the moving words of the poem “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee (reproduced at the front of this book) and reminded those present that the spirit of the American nation was based on heroism and noble sacrifice.
    It was built by men and women like our seven star voyagers, who answered a call beyond duty, who gave more than was expected or required, and who gave it with little thought of worldly reward.
    Today the frontier is space and the boundaries of human knowledge. Sometimes, when we reach for the stars, we fall short. But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain. Our nation is indeed fortunate that we can still draw on immense reserves of courage, character, and fortitude — that we are still blessed with heroes like those of the space shuttle Challenger.
    Man will continue his conquest of space, to reach out for new goals and even greater achievements. That is the way we shall commemorate our seven Challenger heroes.
  • Peter Levy in Encyclopedia of the Reagan-Bush Years: In times of great tragedy, such as the spacecraft Challenger disaster, Reagan had the ability to deliver moving speeches that portrayed a deep-felt sorrow. By doing so, Reagan disarmed those who, based upon his demand for spending cuts in social programs, sought to portray him as an uncaring president.
%d bloggers like this: