Today, America marks the 25th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger tragedy. On January 28, 1986, America lost seven brave explorers – Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe – when NASA suffered its first-ever in-flight loss.
The loss of the Challenger marked one of those vivid moments in our nation’s history that are unforgettable, including where you watched it, heard of it or how you grieved. For millions of Generation Xers, they were in their school rooms, cafeterias and libraries set to witness the historic flight of Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from Concord, New Hampshire whose flight was scheduled to inspire future generations of explorers, scientists and dreamers.
On the evening of January 28, President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation from the Oval Office. In a moment that helped define the character and compassion of Reagan’s presidency, he spoke directly to those school children, when he 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.”
President Reagan also committed to continuing America’s exploration of space despite the tragedy, and celebrated the openness of our space program despite the challenges our nation faced during the Cold War: “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.”
In less than five minutes, President Reagan mourned with a nation, honored its lost heroes and demonstrated our collective resolve. As Reagan told the nation: “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.’”