What made the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster speech so effective?

Nancy Duarte

Written by

Nancy Duarte

Photo credit: The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation

Former President Ronald Reagan was a masterful communicator who was faced with a daunting communication situation immediately after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Of all his presidential moments, on this particular day, I was desperate to hear from my President. I needed him, his comfort, and his insight. His words came across the airwaves like salve for my soul.

The shuttle’s launch had already been delayed twice, and the White House was insisting that it launch before the State of the Union address, so it took off on January 28, 1986. This particular launch was widely publicized because for the first time a civilian — a teacher named Christa McAuliffe — was traveling into space. The plan was to have McAuliffe communicate to students from space. According to the New York Times, nearly half of America’s school children aged nine to thirteen watched the event live in their classrooms. After a short seventy-three seconds into flight, the world was stunned when the shuttle burst into flames, killing all seven crew members on board.

President Ronald Reagan cancelled his scheduled State of the Union address that evening and instead addressed the nation’s grief. In his book Great Speeches for Better Speaking, author Michael E. Eidenmuller describes the situation: “In addressing the American people on an event of national scope, Reagan would play the role of national eulogist. In that role, he would need to imbue the event with life-affirming meaning, praise the deceased, and manage a gamut of emotions accompanying this unforeseen and yet unaccounted-for disaster.

As national eulogist, Reagan would have to offer redemptive hope to his audiences, and particularly to those most directly affected by the disaster. But Reagan would have to be more than just a eulogist. He would also have to be a U.S. President and carry it all with due presidential dignity befitting the office as well as the subject matter.”

The speech succeeded in meeting the emotional requirements of five audiences by carefully addressing each segment.



*The quotations within the analyses below are from Eidenmuller’s book.



Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d planned to speak to you tonight to report on the State of the Union, but the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans. Today is a day for mourning and remembering. Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss.

The State of the Union address is an annual, constitutionally sanctioned speech delivered like a national progress report — and is a significant task to reschedule. “Reagan positions himself both outside the fray as one presiding over it and as one inside of it who shares its painful reality.”

Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But, we’ve never lost an astronaut in flight; we’ve never had a tragedy like this. And perhaps we’ve forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle; but they, the Challenger Seven, were aware of the dangers, but overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together.

“Reagan positions the tragedy within a larger picture without losing the significance of the present tragedy.” He names each crew member and praises them for their courage. To further manage our emotions, Reagan again calls us to national mourning, and establishes the primary audience as the collective mourners.

For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, “Give me a challenge, and I’ll meet it with joy.” They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us.

Reagan narrows his focus to the first and most affected sub-audience: the families of the fallen. He acknowledges the inappropriateness of suggesting how they should feel and offers praise they can take hold of with words like “daring,” “brave,” “special grace,” and “special spirit.”

We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for twenty-five years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and, perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.

Reagan then draws attention back to the general audience’s interest in the larger scientific story. He then envisions the crew’s place in history as transcending science altogether by calling them pioneers. “The term ‘pioneer’ cloaks them in a mythical covering, one dating back to our nation’s earliest ventures.” The astronauts’ death is portrayed as a reasonable outcome of their endeavors.

And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s take-off. I know it’s 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 horizons. 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.

Reagan’s next sub-audience is the school children — an estimated five million — among whom are the students of Christa McAuliffe’s class and school. “Reagan momentarily adopts the tone of an empathizing parent which is tough to do while remaining ‘presidential’ but Reagan carries it well.”

I’ve always had great faith in and respect for our space program. And what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don’t hide our space program. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That’s the way freedom is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute.We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue

Here, Reagan the national eulogist hands off to Reagan the U.S. President. This passage contains the only political statement in the address and is targeted at the Soviet Union. He attacks the secrecy surrounding their failures which had irked American scientists who knew that shared knowledge was the best way to ensure the stability and safety of space programs.

I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA, or who worked on this mission and tell them: “Your dedication and professionalism have moved and impressed us for decades. And we know of your anguish. We share it.”

In this direct address to NASA, Reagan gives needed encouragement, and then turns back again to connect to the whole audience by saying “we share it.”

There’s a coincidence today. On this day three hundred and ninety years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, “He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.” Well, today, we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored 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 their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”Thank you.

In closing, Reagan creates an eloquent and poetic moment. It captures the mythological sentiment surrounding humanity’s unending quest to solve the mysteries of the unknown. The phrase “touch the face of God”, was taken from a poem entitled “High Flight” written by John Magee, an American aviator in WWII. Magee was inspired to write the poem while climbing to 33,000 feet in his Spitfire. It remains in the Library of Congress today.

President Reagan’s ability to credibly move in and out of different roles for different audience segments was a large part of what made him The Great Communicator. The speech lasted only four short minutes, but it resonated on many levels with the American people — myself included.


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