Here's the thing about space travel: it's scary.
Like, anything-can-go-wrong-at-any-minute scary (and we don't mean you can't get your barf bag open fast enough). There's a reason visiting space isn't as easy-peasy a day trip as going to your favorite mermaid theme park. Just getting the space shuttle off the ground takes some serious science, tons of money, and a lot of resources. It also involves incredible risks.
And, unfortunately, sometimes those risks can prove fatal.
When the space shuttle Challenger was flying mission number STS-51-L on January 28, 1986, an internal rocketship part called an "o-ring"—a sort of rubbery tire for keeping super-hot rocket gases from leaking into the wrong place—malfunctioned because it got too cold in the winter air.
As a result, those sneaky, super-hot gases got past the o-ring and burned a hole in the side of the space shuttle's external tank. This was bad. Once the external tank was compromised, the solid rocket boosters on either side of it started to lose their structural integrity too. This was worse.
Then, suddenly, the whole thing went haywire and fell apart mid-flight, a mere seventy-three seconds after takeoff, reminding the world of how dangerous and unpredictable trying to leave the planet could be. (Source)
By the way, the disaster, which resulted in the deaths of the entire crew, was broadcast live…on national television…to hundreds of schoolchildren.
Oof. Somebody got fired over that one.
The Challenger disaster was a major issue, and President Reagan bumped his annual televised State of the Union address, originally scheduled for that night, to talk about it. A challenge (hey-o!) to say the least.
Reagan needed to make everybody feel better about something awful and restore public confidence in the American space program. He enlisted the help of presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan to write a speech that tiptoed through a delicate situation that was as political as it was emotional.
The resulting presidential remarks honored the lives of those lost in the accident and reminded everyone that sometimes the quest for greatness is painful and tragic. Most strikingly, the speech made the astronauts into heroes of history.
Speaking with his gentle grandpappy voice, Reagan finished off the speech with a couple of phrases from John Gillespie Magee Jr.'s poem "High Flight," which created the now famous final line:
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." (45)
In doing so, he symbolically placed the Challenger Seven among the stars, and signed off with an equally stellar clincher.
An accomplishment that is—that's right, you knew it was coming—out of this world.
Explaining a national disaster to an entire nation via live broadcast isn't exactly a walk in the park. Reagan had to tread both carefully and assertively. He had to offer significant condolences to the families of the deceased and make the people at NASA feel better, too.
On top of that, he had to comfort every demographic of the country, especially when it came to the range of age groups he was addressing. (Remember all those school kids watching TV when a rocketship blew apart?)
Determined not to be swayed, Reagan sports-patted the butt of America into holding it together for a grander vision of the future (source).
Had he not been so convincing and determined to remain supportive of the important advancements made by NASA research scientists, the Space Shuttle Program might have shut down right then and there.
Though NASA eventually did retire the program in 2011, it wasn't before space shuttle projects gathered valuable information about our universe via the Hubble Telescope, the International Space Station, and special unmanned missions to research Venus, Jupiter, and the Sun.
Now we can look at pictures of alien landscapes and be terrified by black holes. (Thanks, NASA!)
The Space Shuttle Program also taught us a lot about what happens to the human body in space…which is a whole other conversation about how space travel is super, super scary.
Reagan didn't just secure the legacy of the Challenger Seven, he secured the legacy of space travel and research as we know it today.
Reagan, you get a gold star. Or maybe a couple of 'em. After all there are—and we got this info straight from NASA, btw—approximately 1000 billion stars in the universe.
It Doesn't Get More Official Than This
NASA's webpage describing the tragic events of the space shuttle Challenger Disaster. It highlights the planned mission, if it had succeeded.
Sounds Like Puberty, but Worse
A thorough breakdown of what happens to your body in space. Mylanta, anyone?
NASA's webpage dedicated to those astronauts who've blasted off to the great beyond.
A Space-Car Named Disaster
Some info-tainment in typical History Channel style, with its flair for the sensational.
Anyone for Badminton?
A brief write-up on the memorial monument for the Challenger Seven: a shuttlecock for the ages.
Subtle AND Sensitive
A copy of The Gainesville Sun newspaper from the day after the Challenger Disaster. Note the overall tone of tasteful concern that characterizes the headlines.
The Main Boisjoly
For an amuse-bouche, check out the abstract of this meaty treaty on engineering and workplace ethics by an engineer who worked on the Challenger Mission STS-51-L, Roger M. Boisjoly.
More Real Than Real
An episode of the reputable television program Seconds from Disaster, complete with overacted dramatizations and the occasional Cantonese subtitle.
"Based On" the "True" Story
Two words: TV movie. Starring Barry Bostwick, a.k.a. Brad Majors from the The Rocky Horror Picture Show, this small-screen flick simply titled Challenger was most definitely made for basic cable.
A "Factual" Drama
Another made-for-TV movie. Called The Challenger Disaster, this one stars William Hurt of Altered States fame and is based on somewhat-more-reputable source material.
A Rush to Speculate
Produced on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Challenger Disaster, it profiles the individual crew members a bit more than other television documentary programs, but keeps up with them in terms of its sensationalist tone.
Twenty-Five Years On
An article reviewing both the disaster and Reagan's address of the nation twenty-five years after its occurrence. It provides some interesting insight into the creation of the speech.
Thirty Years On
An article reviewing both the disaster and Reagan's address to the nation thirty years after its occurrence. It provides some background from the perspective of Peggy Noonan, author of Reagan's speech.
Thirty Years On, Part II
Yet another article reviewing both the disaster and Reagan's address of the nation, also thirty years after its occurrence. Includes passages from Reagan's diary entries at that time.
Reagan, and Again, and Again
Official video from the Reagan Foundation of the President's address to the nation the night of the Challenger Disaster. For your viewing pleasure, for as many time as you please.
Super technical NASA documentary investigating the possible causes of the space shuttle Challenger Disaster.
Is That Poutine?
Thanks to the Canadian Space Agency, we can all learn what happens when you puke in outer space.
Not for the Fainthearted
Actual, real-time video footage of the space shuttle Challenger exploding. You've been warned.
3+ Hours of Empty Conjecture, Sustained Anxiety, and Fear Mongering
Original radio broadcast audio from CBS News reporting on the Challenger Disaster. Featuring a lot of people with a lot of opinions based on very little information.
The Magnificent Seven
Official portrait of the space shuttle Challenger crew.
Launch Pad With Crows
Spooky photograph of the space shuttle Challenger at the moment of take-off.
Zero Gravity Make Even Obscure Tasks Fun
Official image of Christa McAuliffe and her Teacher In Space understudy, Barbara Morgan, performing an astronaut task.
Something Doesn't Look Right…
A still image of the demented-looking contrails that resulted from the space shuttle Challenger Disaster. Watch any of the documentaries listed to find out why this happened.