Study Guide

Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster Address Themes

By Ronald Reagan

  • Sadness

    Not acknowledging the tragedy of seven people dying in a hideous engineering accident would be like not acknowledging that an Almond Joy contains coconut...only a thousand times worse. It's a speech about a disaster, guys. Of course it's going to be sad. Its entire premise is one of sadness.

    Reagan could very well have dwelled on the gruesome details in his "Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster Address" like he owned stock in Kleenex. But instead of being weighed down by it, he accepts the calamity and he rallies the nation together. Through collective mourning, he guides people through heartbreak while looking toward to a bright and exciting future.

    Questions About Sadness

    1. How does President Reagan make public sadness seem personal? What are some examples in the text of the speech?
    2. Does President Reagan adequately address the extent of the tragedy in this speech? Why or why not?
    3. The history of human space exploration is darkened by many tragedies. What makes the Challenger disaster different?
    4. If you were a NASA employee who worked on space shuttle Challenger mission STS-51-L, how might you respond to President Reagan's speech?

    Chew on This

    President Reagan's speech isn't long enough to adequately address the true extent of the Challenger tragedy and it glosses over the necessary condolences to the crew's grieving families.

    The president's address to the nation about the Challenger Disaster was an inspiring public message that genuinely and nobly acknowledged the immense loss of the day.

  • Exploration

    From ear spelunking with a cotton swab to kicking around dust on the moon, exploration is something that everyone does to some degree. Humans have always been insatiably curious, especially about the unknown.

    In his "Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster Address," Reagan praises that willingness to leap into the unknown with the vigor of a flying squirrel. Historically, that wild leap has lead to some of the most significant cultural, technological, and scientific advancements of humankind.

    He's also reminding people that while exploration opens up new and exciting worlds, you have to be all-in because you never know where it will take you.

    Questions About Exploration

    1. How might President Reagan's insistence on the benefits of exploration and continued discovery be related to his political agenda? Consider world events during his term in office.
    2. Is President Reagan justifying the deaths of seven people as the cost of pioneering?
    3. Does exploration always involve risk? Why might risk be emphasized here?
    4. Does President Reagan paint a picture of the Challenger Seven as a group of martyrs?

    Chew on This

    President Reagan's characterization of the Challenger Seven as swashbuckling star sailors is fantastical and misguided in the face of a national tragedy.

    "Exploration" is being misused in this context because the space shuttle crew never made it far enough to explore anything. This is false praise in an attempt to clean up a messy situation.

  • Courage

    Going where few, if any, have gone before takes some major guts. It's a gamble. Once you're off, going back is no longer an option. Sometimes you discover a room full of pillows and Labrador retriever puppies. Sometimes you plummet into a tiger pit full of hand-hewn bamboo spikes to the sound of frantic bongo music.

    Hopefully, it's the former.

    Accepting those risks takes just as much courage as embarking on the adventure itself. In "Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster Address," Reagan is praising the Challenger Seven for their acceptance of the dangers of their mission.

    Questions About Courage

    1. Why does President Reagan focus so much attention on the future? Does it have any connection to the geopolitical situation of the Cold War?
    2. How does the speech connect the theme of courage with the theme of exploration?
    3. Are the Challenger Seven inadvertently characterized as thrill-seekers?

    Chew on This

    The Challenger Seven were especially brave—it's much easier to be an astronaut today than it was in 1986.

    It's inappropriate to speak for the Challenger Seven and assume they were aware of dangers that could not be predicted.

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