Study Guide

Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster Address Analysis

By Ronald Reagan

  • Rhetoric

    Pathos (and a Bit of Ethos)

    If pathos were a salsa, Reagan would be slopping a giant ladle full of garlicky pico de gallo on America's burrito of sympathy. And he will be serving seconds.

    It's the kind of thing that will stay with you for days…or decades.

    Emotions are inevitable. It's a speech about death, and Reagan is responding to the heightened emotions of a country in crisis. There is no way around acknowledging seven people lost their lives, so Reagan discusses it frankly and calmly.

    But he doesn't dwell on the misfortune. Instead he redirects the emotional focus onto a celebration of the astronauts' lives. Like when he says,

    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." (13)

    He also jazzes up that pathos with a bit of ethos, highlighting the admirable characters of each crewmember and reflecting on their virtues:

    The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. (44)

    That's a powerful statement to make about someone whom you've never met, but that's beside the point. To his audience, Reagan isn't talking about dead strangers, he's talking about American heroes.

    His words don't attempt to rationalize the deaths of the astronauts; that would be heartless. But he does attempt to make sense of the pain of their deaths by viewing them from a historical perspective.

    He provides a bigger picture of human discovery and peril, in which the Challenger Seven become a significant part. The takeaway message is not that the astronauts were victims, but that they made the ultimate sacrifice.

    After all, it wasn't called Challenger for nothing. That thing was a challenge.

  • Structure

    Reagan delivered the "Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster Address" under highly controlled circumstances. Seated behind his desk in the Oval Office, likely on his favorite sitting-pillow, he was face-to-face with a television camera. Though there was a sizeable camera crew in the room, he didn't have to contend with a giant live audience. (Source)

    At least not in person.

    That doesn't mean the pressure wasn't on. Within a matter of hours, Reagan's speechwriters had to concoct something for the president to say to the country, and it had to be perfect.

    This job went to Peggy Noonan, in part because her coworkers thought that a woman would do a better job of writing an emotional speech. Turns out she was just a highly skilled and talented writer who also happened to be a woman, and she did an amazing job.

    With little time to draft the speech, and even less time for Reagan's PR team to tinker with it, Noonan's words made it to the president with little alteration. Some of Reagan's advisers wanted "pained to the core" removed because they thought it was too soft. (Source)

    Reagan himself apparently had doubts about the speech overall. But he delivered it anyway.

    In length the speech is very short, taking Reagan about only four minutes to deliver. That's approximately the time it takes to microwave a bag of popcorn.

    Knowing Reagan would have to appeal to a large and diverse audience, the structure of the speech is very straightforward. Small paragraphs consist of short sentences almost all the way through, with the exception of the ending. The elaborate language of the final line is made to stand out in contrast to the short sentences and candid vocabulary of the preceding text.

    As a result, Reagan was able to deliver the concise speech clearly and calmly with little preparation. His careful and emotive interpretation further enhanced its accessibility and made it one of the most influential speeches of his presidency.

    How it Breaks Down

    Part 1: Introduction (Sentences 1-5)

    Well, Hello

    The camera operator has counted down 3...2...1 and President Reagan is live on television. He introduces his speech with a formal greeting to the nation, comments upon the postponement of the State of the Union address, and labels the day as one for grief.

    He gets personal and brings his wife, Nancy, into the mix when talking about the emotional pain they both feel and share with country over the Challenger tragedy.

    Part 2: Condolences (Sentences 6-16)

    Sorry For Your Loss

    In this section, Reagan reflects on tragedy. He mentions a previous NASA accident, and then specifically talks about the Challenger Disaster, naming the seven deceased astronauts in the process.

    After this he reaches out to the families of the Challenger crew to offer his condolences. In other circumstances, this section might be thought of as packed full of shout-outs and compliments, but in this case it's more like Reagan is paying his respects to the bereaved.

    It's all about context, yo.

    Part 3: Transition (Sentences 17-22)

    Distracting and Beauteous So He Can Change the Subject

    Reagan briefly reflects on the wondrousness of space travel and comes to a mini-conclusion here on the subject of the Challenger Seven. He's beginning to shift away from discussing death to focus on other topics, like NASA.

    Part 4: An Aside (Sentences 23-28)

    That's One Way to Keep Them From Watching Too Much TV

    Before talking about NASA, however, Reagan does a little bit of damage control. He speaks directly to the children who watched the disaster unfold on TV He offers some "comforting" thoughts about bravery and loss.

    Part 5: Reassurances (Sentences 29-39)

    Really, Everything's Fine

    In the second-to-last portion, Reagan pays a lot of attention to NASA. He asserts that just because a disaster has occurred doesn't mean that NASA is any less special and perfect than it was before. He praises its qualities of transparency and ties that to ideas of American freedom.

    He enthusiastically supports the continued work of NASA and promises that the future holds many more space shuttle missions.

    He also offers his sympathies and support to the employees of NASA.

    Part 6: Conclusion (Sentences 40-45)

    Houston, We Have a Poem

    The final sentences return to the topic of the Challenger Seven. Reagan draws a connection between 16th-century adventurer Sir Francis Drake and the crew because of their shared dedication to human exploration

    A poetic final sentence makes for an emotional farewell to the lost astronauts, securing the memory of their demise and the success of the speech itself.

  • Tone

    Firm, With Just the Right Amount of Give (Like a Block of Overpriced Organic Tofu)

    Talking about painful events can be very difficult. Reagan had to convey a sense of steadfastness, confidence, and emotional intelligence all at the same time. The most effective way for him to do this was through the careful use of tone.

    With a strategic balance of tenderness and solidity, Reagan's speech is one of the most carefully written "tough love" statements of the 20th century.

    The speech has a firmness to it that works to restore confidence to the audience. Words like "daring," "brave," and "faith" are comforting. They are intended to pump up the tired and sad psyche of the country with something solid and nourishing.

    Add to that just the right amount of compassion, and you get a sense of relief and familiarity. When Reagan says, "Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue" (36), he's confirming a better future and reassuring people that America had not been thwarted by tragedy.

  • Writing Style

    Direct, Succinct, Uncomplicated

    When speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote Reagan's Challenger address, she said she knew she had "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" (source).

    Dang. That's a tall order.

    It was going be a short speech, and it had to cover a lot of material without becoming too complex. She used vocabulary that is straightforward and unambiguous. The language is based in the everyday, and as a result, its ideas come across as open and sincere.

    Here's a good example of what Peggy was talking about:

    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. (34-36)

    Got all that? See, we told you it was pretty straightforward.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The speech doesn't really have a title, but is has a stuffy, official name:

    "Explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger Address to the Nation, January 28, 1986."

    Cut and dried...and wrong. Reagan's speech was written and delivered before any investigation into the Challenger accident took place. Everyone thought the space shuttle had exploded. It was later determined that the shuttle didn't so much explode as fall apart like an H&M sweatshirt after two washes and a tumble dry on low.

    Regardless, the official name of the speech was recorded in the history books and the misconception about Challenger's unfortunate demise endures.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    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. (1-2)

    The first two sentences are totally not famous, but they do a lot of work for only being two puny sentences.

    The "ladies and gentlemen" intro is formal, though it's formal in a predictable way. It very gently and respectfully invites people to pay attention. After a day of defective rockets and group death, a little bit of old-fashioned etiquette was probably a welcomed gesture.

    It sets a solemn tone that is sustained throughout the speech and is emphasized by Reagan's declaration that the day is "for mourning and remembering." Besides, opening with a knock-knock joke wouldn't have played too well to the audience (the grieving population of an entire country is a tough crowd).

    Reagan makes mention of the rescheduled State of the Union address in a manner that is almost offhand, but this nonchalance further stresses the gravity of the Challenger Disaster and the importance of what he is about to say. Some things are bigger than a lil' SOTU talk.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    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." (44-45)

    Reagan really brings home the bacon on emotional appeal in the final sentences.

    By mentioning the Challenger Seven a last time, he returns to the original purpose of his speech, tying it up like a gift-wrapped bread machine from Younkers. His assertion that the astronauts honored us simply for being who they were is a crafty bit of ethos.

    It's meant to leave a lasting impression of the astronauts as the best role models ever. It also supports all of his earlier comments about the crew. He his telling his audience that personal values like bravery, duty, and determination are quintessential American traits.

    And that final line? Think of it as a big fancy bow on top.

    In some ways, it's an unexpected conclusion because the poetry breaks away from the tearful formality of everything that came before it. It creates a sense of poignancy and makes what amounted to a technical malfunction seem a lot more epic…and religious.

    The language inspires a moment of contemplation about mortality, progress, and the infinite beyond. Reagan received a lot of praise for this final flourish (even though it's mostly from John Gillespie Magee Jr.'s poem, "High Flight"). It has since become the most frequently cited portion of the speech and its most quoted line.

  • Tough-o-Meter

     (2) Sea Level

    Yes, dropping in some poetry at the end there was a bold move, but it's not like Reagan was reciting "The Jabberwocky." (Also, that would have been pretty weird.)

    The speech is pretty straightforward. A main concern of its author, Peggy Noonan, was to make it accessible to all audiences. It combines clear wording—even if it is a tad poetic at times—with an appeal to emotional response.

    And if it made you a little bit misty-eyed, good. That's what it was supposed to do. And that kinda proves you're human: we're talking about the deaths of some heroic astronauts here.

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Literary and Philosophical References

    John Gillespie Magee Jr.'s poem, "High Flight" (45)

    Historical and Political References

    First Lady of the United States of America, Nancy Reagan (3)
    Apollo I disaster victims: Virgil I. Grissom, Edward H. White, and Roger Chaffee (6)
    Challenger Seven: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe (8-9)
    The surviving families of the Challenger Seven (11)
    The schoolchildren of America (23)
    Employees of NASA (37)
    Sir Francis Drake (41)

    Biblical References

    God (45)

    References to This Text

    Historical and Political References

    Reagan's "Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster Address" is pretty serious, so it doesn't get a lot of play on the pop-culture circuit. It's kind of tricky to make a humorous aside about a national tragedy. Check out a few of these articles from the 25th and 30th anniversaries reminiscing about the star quality of his delivery:

    Peter Grier, "Challenger explosion: How President Reagan responded" (Source)
    Justin Wm. Moyer, "Exactly the right words, exactly the right way: Reagan's amazing Challenger disaster speech" (Source)
    Joshua Barajas, "President Reagan's speech to a nation reeling after Challenger disaster" (Source)

  • Trivia

    Contrary to popular belief, the space shuttle Challenger didn't really explode—though no one in Washington knew that at the time. It was actually engulfed in a fireball when a sudden release of hydrogen and oxygen ignited after the fuel tank collapsed. Yeah, we know…that doesn't make it any better. (Source)

    Heads up, this one is a bit gruesome. The cause of death is unknown for the Challenger Seven, but it is unlikely they died as an immediate result of the shuttle's mid-flight collapse. There are a lot of theories about cabin pressure, oxygen deficiency, and loss of consciousness within the crew cabin. Regardless, the impact of the cabin on the surface of the ocean after a three-minute fall would have been completely fatal. (Source)

    According to Peggy Noonan, her original version of the speech was written so that it could end just before the last paragraph in case President Reagan didn't want to read poetry. As we know, Reagan took the road less traveled by, and that made all the difference. (Source)

    Unlike meteors, chunks of the moon, or anything else lovingly referred to as "space junk," it is technically illegal to own a piece of wreckage from the fallen space shuttle Challenger. (Source)