Study Guide

Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster Address Compare and Contrast

By Ronald Reagan

  • Eugene Kranz's "Tough and Competent" Speech after the Apollo 1 Accident

    Less than a month before the Apollo 1 was supposed to land on the moon, it caught fire during a launch rehearsal on January 27, 1967. It killed all three of its crew members. Whoa.

    Turns out the fire was caused by a whole bunch of design and calculation errors on the part of NASA, meaning the astronauts' deaths could have been prevented. Double whoa.

    In an attempt to prevent future fatal blunders, NASA Flight Director Eugene Kranz delivered a "shape up or ship out"-style speech to his staff about their responsibilities to the safety and well-being of the astronauts. He urged his team of ground controllers to be "tough and competent," and not let something like Apollo 1 happen again because of carelessness.

    Sadly, Kranz's words didn't put an end to all space flight disasters, but the gist of his message to be as thorough and rigorous as possible became core values of NASA's workforce.

    So when an accident like the Challenger Disaster occurs, it prompts the question: who wasn't as tough or as competent as they should have been?

  • Ronald Reagan's Radio Address to the Nation on the Space Program

    Reagan's Challenger address wasn't the first time he spoke to America about its space program. He was actually a longtime fan of space exploration and advancements in the possibilities of space research were a big part of his agenda during his first presidential term.

    Almost exactly two years to the day before the Challenger Disaster, Reagan gave a radio address focused on the topic of the space program. A lot of the elements that make up his Challenger address can be identified in this earlier speech.

    There are comparisons between historical moments and space flight events, the portrayal of space exploration as the new "frontier" and astronauts as "pioneers," and a conclusion that explicitly references "God."

    Of course, the future tragedy of the Challenger would have been unknown to him at the time (he wasn't psychic). The similarities between this speech and his Challenger address just reveal the skill of his speechwriters, who made sure to stick to the themes of Reagan's earlier speeches and reinforce the themes of his presidency.

  • George H. W. Bush's "Teacher in Space" Announcement

    Toward the end of his first presidential term, Reagan announced the Teacher in Space Project (TISP), Working with NASA, the TISP was intended to expand the boundaries of the American education system as well as send the first civilians into space.

    A super intense application process involving thousands was followed by an even more intense training process of ten semi-finalists from whom two teachers were chosen as the winners of the competition. The first-place winner would fly to space.

    The second-place winner would be the backup…a substitute teacher.

    Once the competition was over, Vice President George H. W. Bush announced the winners. Before revealing the names of the two teachers who have "just the right stuff" to act "as a link between NASA and the nation's school system," he talked about how great teachers are because of all the things they do to educate us (answer: a lot).

    Eventually, Vice President Bush announced Christa McAuliffe as the winner. Enthusiastic and unaware of the events to come, her response seems spooky and sad in hindsight.

    With gratitude, she quips about the talkative nature of teachers and gives a shout-out to her fellow competitors when she says,

    It's not often that a teacher is at a loss for words. I know my students wouldn't think so. I've made nine wonderful friends over the last two weeks. And when that shuttle goes, there might be one body, but there's going to be ten souls that I'm taking with me.

    See what we mean about spooky in hindsight?

  • Report to the President by the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident

    You won't find this one in the paperback section of your local supermarket.

    Drier than the Mojave Desert, the "Report to the President by the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident" of June 6th, 1986, describes the findings of an investigation into the causes for the structural failure of the Challenger.

    Remembered more casually as the "Rogers Commission Report," after the Commission Chairman, William P. Rogers, it is a document drafted by a committee appointed to investigate the causes of the Challenger Disaster.

    It exposes a series of engineering flaws and organizational faults on the part of NASA, including a description of deficient "o-rings" that failed to operate properly during launch, setting off a chain reaction of malfunctions that collectively led to the destruction of the Challenger. It also leaves no NASA employee or contractor unaccountable for the breakdown.

    The report ends with a list of safety improvements that required NASA to get it together. It also demands that certain key parties involved with the Challenger mission take responsibility for their failures.

    Crammed with technical details, the Rogers Commission Report is an up-close look at the government's response to the Challenger Disaster. It might not be on the bestseller list, but it's fascinating nonetheless...if you're into that kind of thing.

  • Remarks by the President on the Loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia by George W. Bush

    On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in the sky as it reentered the Earth's atmosphere over east Texas. Needless to say, there were no survivors.

    Like Reagan before him, President George W. Bush appeared on television just a few hours after the disaster to address a nation in distress. Unlike Reagan before him, his remarks didn't exactly hit a homerun.

    Let's face it: not all presidential speeches are created equal, no matter how important or significant the event. George W. Bush's address of the nation on the space shuttle Columbia tragedy happens to be one of those speeches.

    To be fair, it did have a lot to live up to given the legendary status of Reagan's "Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster Address." The text also owes a lot to it predecessor. Its structure follows the same basic sequence of topics, from addressing the nation to acknowledging the families of the deceased astronauts to invoking images of celestial wonder.

    But it's kind of dull…like an off-brand version of Reagan's original.

    Rhetorical success and impact aside, though, Bush's address is a good example of the long-lasting influence Reagan's speech had on presidential rhetoric in the event of national tragedy. Even if it is sometimes cosmically lackluster.

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