Study Guide

Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster Address Historical Context

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Historical Context

U MAD, Bro?

It's 1986. The only thing that's more frightening than Teddy Ruxpin is the Cold War.

And we're not talking about a snowball fight. We're talking about the period of time when the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (or U.S.S.R. for short) dominated the world stage during an incredibly tense era dominated by the threat of nuclear warfare.

Once pals in their epic tag-team against the Nazis during World War II, they went through a messy break-up over deciding how post-war Germany should be run. The Soviets were gunnin' for a communist state, but team America would have none of it, and enforced a capitalist democratic model.

The U.S.S.R. didn't take this too well and dfoubled-down on their communist agenda, creating the country of East Germany, the Berlin Wall, and a slew of "whatever you can do I can do better" responses to the U.S.

Fast forward thirty-odd years to the mid-1980s, and the fight is still going strong. The two countries have stockpiled atomic weapons that they threaten to use again each other. This creates an insane international stand-off called "Mutual Assured Destruction" (or MAD for short).

It meant that nuclear aggression by one world power would be met with nuclear aggression by the other world power...because nothing solves a dispute like blowing everything to smithereens.

This mad, MAD world was the culmination of decades of ideological, political, and economic conflict between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. that took many forms and lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 (source). But we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves.

In Soviet Russia, Space Explores You

On October 4, 1957, the U.S.S.R. successfully placed the first artificial satellite in Earth's orbit, a glorified silver yoga ball called Sputnik 1. The U.S. freaked out over this victory, because it trumped them in the so-called "Space Race," a technological peeing contest that symbolized the competition between the two powers.

However, this was nothing compared to the fit that occurred on April 12, 1961, when the Soviets successfully sent the first human into space. (Source)

Not only was it deeply embarrassing for America, but fear over the Soviet's advancements in the Space Race was palpably mounting. Adding insult to injury, the Soviets also used cool-sounding words in their space program, like cosmonaut. (Ooooh.)

Feeling sensitive about the whole thing, President John F. Kennedy and his freshly minted administration ate a package of Oreos, cried in the shower, and after a deep breath, decided to shoot for the moon...or rather, shoot someone to the moon, kicking the Space Race into high octane mode. (Source)

If You Thawed the Cold War Was Over...Think Reagan

Unfortunately, his assassination meant that Kennedy missed the U.S. space shuttle Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969—an accomplishment that put America at the head of the Space Race and made the Soviets spill borscht all over their balalaikas. (Source)

It wasn't until July 1975, with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, that a U.S.-U.S.S.R. space flight collaboration occurred. For some, it marked the conclusion of the Space Race with the U.S. occupying the upper hand. For others, it was simply a geopolitical soft spot that characterized the détente period of the Cold War. (Source)

Détente is a fancy word referring to the slacking of tensions between America and the Soviet Union during the 1970s, and though it was a nice idea, it was short-lived. Peaking during the Nixon Administration, the truce was as dead as disco by the time Reagan was inaugurated in January 1981.

Think of the Children

After four years of steadily increasing Cold War rivalry, Reagan was re-elected in 1984 to continue grappling with the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. His reelection also gave the First Lady a chance to finally invite Alf to Christmas.

Barely a year into his second term, the space shuttle Challenger unexpectedly exploded in the sky over Cape Canaveral. Inside of the space shuttle, a rubber washer-like seal called an "o-ring" had failed to prevent insanely hot rocket gases from burning a hole in the side of the external fuel tank. Just seventy-three seconds after launch the space shuttle broke apart and its pieces scattered all over the sky. No one saw the disaster coming, and the nation was shocked.

To many, the Challenger was as a cultural symbol of social advancement. On previous missions, it had successfully flown the first woman, the first African-American, and the first Canadian into space. The Challenger's tenth mission, scheduled for January 28, 1986, was the focus of much media hype, especially because on board was the anticipated first civilian and first teacher in space, Christine McAuliffe.

McAuliffe was the winner of the inaugural Teach in Space Program (TISP) competition, a Reagan administration initiative to enliven the American education system, and the reason for McAuliffe's historical presence aboard the space shuttle. Because of this, many schools around the country had organized special programming for students to watch the Challenger launch via television broadcast.


Yeah, so you can imagine that when things didn't go according to plan, the situation was made all the more terrible because tons of kids across the country had watched the disaster unfold in real-time on TV. Hence, Reagan's direct address "to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle's takeoff" (23).

Recess that day probably wasn't one for the books.

No Plan "B"

Costing over a billion dollars (which was even more money in the 1980s than it is today…and it's still a lot), the Challenger project was intended to revamp NASA's reputation as a sparkly, exciting space explorer...a reputation that had basically retreated to the dark side of the moon since the end of the Apollo Era in the mid-1970s. (Source)

Obviously, this plan flopped.

Following the disaster, the White House scrambled to prepare the President's comments, and at 5:00 pm that evening, President Ronald Reagan soothingly spoke to the nation, appearing on the same televisions that had broadcasted disaster only a few hours before.

Hardcore Investigation Time

Though Reagan's comments in the "Space Shuttle Challenger Address" were supportive of NASA, it didn't mean that NASA was off the hook. Almost immediately, a presidentially issued investigation into the cause of the Challenger accident took place. The investigators' findings were revealed several months later as the "Rogers Commission Report." (Check out the "Compare and Contrast" section for details on this juicy document.)

NASA's Space Shuttle Program was stalled for several months during and after the Rogers Commission investigation, but finally resumed flight in September 1988. Though things went smoothly for many more years, the Space Shuttle Program endured one more great tragedy before shutting down in 2011, the Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster. Occurring in 2003, it also resulted in the deaths of its entire crew, and like Challenger was mourned deeply by the nation.

Reagan's "Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster Address" is considered by many to be a shining moment of his presidency, which continued for another three years. During that time he combated the Cold War with his Reagan Doctrine, navigated the nation into calmer economic waters, and became embroiled in the controversial Iran-Contra Affair.

Upon his departure from the White House, he was the oldest person to have ever served as President of the United States of America. Not too shabby for a dude old enough to be taking advantage of AARP early bird specials and playing shuffleboard in the Florida Keys.

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