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It's difficult to image how it must have felt when a sudden burst of static from the radio channel between Challenger and Mission Control signaled the sudden loss of the space shuttle.
In film footage from NASA's Mission Control Center during the Challenger launch, the moment disaster strikes is met with disbelief. Capsule Communicator Richard Covey stares at a video monitor in wonder. The camera pans around the room the reveal other equally perplexed men. The event is clearly bewildering. (Source)
By the time the Challenger disintegrated in the sky, NASA had seen its fair share of mishaps. Since the beginning of space exploration in 1958, when NASA was initiated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, rockets had been exploding, falling apart, or breaking down.
That doesn't make what happened to the Challenger any less devastating; it just means that when NASA has a bad day, it has a really bad day.
NASA gets a special mention in Reagan's speech because he knew that the people who worked so closely on the project and with the crew would be intensely affected by the tragedy. He also needed to do a little bit of damage control in terms of NASA's legitimacy and America's mighty space reputation.
The Cold War might have been in its final years, but it wasn't over yet. It was important for Reagan to send a clear message that the Challenger Disaster was a scientific enterprise gone wrong and not a military accident indicating a weakness in American military strength.
Reagan had a particular investment in the space program. He believed that developments in space technology would open up opportunities for Americans, creating jobs and encouraging economic and scientific prosperity.
Remember the "Teacher in Space Project"? That was one of those opportunities.
What's more, NASA's Space Shuttle Program had been subject to significant cuts in funding throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. After the U.S. landed on the moon, people sort of lost interest and NASA's budget took a hit. Challenger Mission STS-51-L was supposed to reignite public excitement for the work NASA was doing.
He was also confident in the national and international political benefits of a manned research space station accessible via a U.S. space shuttle...a space shuttle like the Challenger. So when things go horrible awry with the sole mode of transport to a destination the president has firmly supported and promoted, the political fall out is potentially just as ugly as a space flight disaster itself.