NASA, on a clear Florida morning on Jan. 28, 1986, watched with the world in horror as Space Shuttle Challenger exploded after liftoff.
Millions tuned in on TVs as the shuttle, 73 seconds after leaving Cape Canaveral, Fla., blew up, killing all seven crew members on board.
President Ronald Reagan, who also watched the Challenger disaster from The White House in Washington, D.C., already had a nationally-televised speech planned. He was going to give an update to the American people about the state of the nation from the Oval Office.
Those plans were scrapped.
Reagan Offers Nation Words Of Comfort After Challenger
Reagan, on that night, opened his address about the Challenger accident by saying, “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,” Reagan said. “(First Lady) 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.”
In his speech, Reagan recalls 19 years earlier an accident where three astronauts were killed on a launching pad. He said, though, that this was the first time an astronaut has been killed in flight.
“We mourn seven heroes – Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnick, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe,” Reagan said. “We mourn their loss as a nation together. 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.”
Listen to Reagan’s speech on that sad night to a hurting nation.
NASA Stops Shuttle Travel After Challenger Disaster
NASA’s Mission Control could be seen by TV viewers as each person in there was in a state of shock. Anchors of major news networks showing the Challenger liftoff and eventual explosion were left to wonder what happened.
Many schools took time out from their regular class schedule to have students watch it. Some teachers immediately turned off TVs after the Challenger explosion happened. The news spread around the world quickly, bringing in condolences from one foreign leader after another. Newspapers printed “extra” sections and mixed photos of the entire scene in Florida and other locations within its pages.
NASA put a halt to shuttle travel after the Challenger explosion. Leaders took time to look at what happened with the shuttle itself before restarting the Shuttle program.
Reagan took to the airwaves in an effort not only to express a grieving nation’s sadness toward the astronauts’ families. He also displayed empathy, compassion, and caring on a night where it was desperately needed.
His speech remains one of the most poignant reminders from a horrible day in United States history.