I was in my senior year in high school…

And I still remember parts of that day in vivid detail. We had a social justice project with members from our sister school, though I can’t recall the project…I was looking forward to that meeting with anxiety and excitement as I thought I had finally figured out who my “secret admirer” was, the one who had been leaving me cards and who would make finding a date for the upcoming senior prom a real possibility, not the difficult proposition I was dreading…

All those feelings and thoughts went up in smoke with the sad events of that morning. It was the first national tragedy that I was living through with real understanding and it hit me especially hard. I was crazy nuts about NASA and space exploration, especially the shuttle program, and had all the stickers from each of the missions to date. I was so excited about the notion that a teacher would be launched on that day’s journey…something so historic and so inspiring.

And then the message came over the PA: A tragic accident involving the space shuttle, all presumed dead, pray for their souls and their families. I remember trying to hold it together all through the morning and was thankful for the meeting that afternoon which allowed me to be in the library where there was a TV and the coverage of the event…. I watched over and over as they replayed the launch instead of working on that project. And the tears flowed.  And they flowed more that night as the president addressed the nation. As usual, Ronald Reagan had great words for a nation in mourning…  I leave you with those and with the hope that the pioneering spirit of humanity and our great nation will never be extinguished:

The day they ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’
Text of President Reagan’s Challenger speech
By the AP

President Ronald Reagan’s address to the nation after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, which killed seven astronauts. It was delivered from the Oval Office of the White House at 5 p.m. on Jan. 28, 1986.

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. 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. 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.

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 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.

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. 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.

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.”


3 thoughts on “I was in my senior year in high school…

  1. I remember exactly where I was too–in Spanish class. Senora Chapman, our teacher, rushed into class and was trying to hold back tears as she told us the news. And I remember the newscasters and their shuttle models as they tried to explain what happened and showed that horrible image of the shuttle exploding over and over again. More recently, I thought of that day and the crew while I was writing my book about space shuttles for K-2 students. The dedication, courage, and optimism of astronauts is truly amazing.

    Now you know I’m not a big fan of President Reagan and his policies, Mr. Blake. But this particular speech is exceptional and the last line is unforgettable.


  2. So that article tells me that Obama is smart enough and savvy enough to examine previous presidencies and learn from their successes and failures. Certainly Reagan had charisma and knew how to communicate to get Americans on board with his policies (although I personally am not a fan of “folksiness”). And if Obama can leverage that approach, more power to him. Still, the two president differ significantly in their policies.

    So are you planning to frame the cover? 🙂


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