President Reagan gave this remarkably wise speech the day of the Challenger disaster

ronald reagan

Wikimedia Commons

Ronald Reagan, 40th president of the United States

When President Ronald Reagan heard about the Challenger explosion the morning of January 28, 1986, he was preparing to give the State of the Union address that very night.

He postponed the speech for the following week, and instead directly addressed the nation on the disaster.Advertisement

"We'll continue our quest in space," Reagan said from the Oval Office that evening. "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."

The Challenger disaster was the worst tragedy in US spaceflight history, taking the lives of the seven crewmembers onboard, including civilian high school teacher and trained payload specialist Christa McAuliffe.

McAuliffe is the second woman you see here, in the last footage before the crew boarded the Challenger spacecraft:

Reagan also addressed schoolchildren who watched the launch live on TV in order to see McAuliffe, the first teacher bound for space, make her historic flight:Advertisement

"I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen," he said. "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."

As the US transitions into a predominantly private space program, with companies like SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and Blue Origin pushing to ever greater heights, Reagan's words are just as poignant today. They also ring true for the rising space tourism industry and Virgin Galactic's deadly SpaceShipTwo crash in October 2014.

We've posted the full text of his speech after this video from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, which shows the entire address:Advertisement

And here's the speech in its entirety, from NASA's archives:

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.Advertisement

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.

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.Advertisement

We've grown used to wonders in this century. It's hard to dazzle us. But for 25 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.

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.Advertisement

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.

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."

There's a coincidence today. On this day 390 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 an 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.Advertisement

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."

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