Reflections on the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster

Photo: CNN

34 years ago today, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart, exploded, and disintegrated just 73 seconds after liftoff. All seven crew members perished.

Much of the nation was watching the morning launch, live on TV, including school children coast to coast, and family members of the astronauts at Cape Canaveral in Florida. As the news cameras rolled, and the Space Shuttle exploded, Americans watched the anguish, shock, and grief unfold in real-time, with tragic images that would embed themselves to American history. It was as Reagan said, a “national loss”.

An absolutely crushing day for the nation, and the most shocking tragedy of that generation. Like John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Americans had witnessed a monumental event, and walked around in a daze for a few days.

That night, a traumatized nation gathered around their televisions to watch President Ronald Reagan address the nation, in one of the most important moments of any Presidency. Reagan’s words would help comfort Americans, and stabilize a country in shock.

The Challenger tragedy was a setback for America’s space program, but the nation would return to space another time. The President’s address ensured this.

34 years is a long time, and newer generations may not know much about what happened, but on January 28th each year, it’s a good day to tell the story of of one of the most consequential days in American history, and quote from Ronald Reagan’s speech too.

“The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.” -President Ronald Reagan (January 28, 1986)