On the morning of January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger was launched from Florida. Just 73 seconds after liftoff, the shuttle broke apart mid-air and disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean. On board were seven astronauts, including the civilian schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. Evidence shows that some of the astronauts survived the initial breakup, but were killed upon impact with the ocean. The disaster was witnessed live on television.
President Ronald Reagan had been originally scheduled to present his State of Union address that evening. In response to the events of that morning, he postponed that speech to the following week, and instead addressed the nation from the Oval Office.
The short address was written by Peggy Noonan. It aimed to comfort the nation while reiterating that the space program would continue, combining the moment of tragedy with a reminder that “the future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.”
Its moving final lines borrow from the poem “High Flight” by John Magee, an American poet and aviator who died at the age of 19 during WWII.
And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizon. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honoured 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 the journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’