Remembering Reagan and the Space Shuttle Challenger

July 7, 2008 - 7:19 PM

(CNSNews.com) - A photograph of Ronald Reagan's initial reaction to the Jan. 28, 1986 space shuttle Challenger explosion depicted the former president in such a state of despondence that his staff declined to release it for the public's view, out of respect for the leader and his family, said one member of the 1986 White House team.

Sunday marks the 15th anniversary of the tragedy and of Reagan's subsequent address to the nation, a speech that helped Americans cope with the shock and grief of the disaster, and a speech still considered one of Reagan's finest moments in office.

However, before he could help the nation heal its wounds on that terrible day 15 years ago, Reagan had to recover his own composure.

"Reagan had the most unbelieving and sad expression on his face," said Larry M. Speakes, a press spokesman for the former president between 1981 and 1987. "I never released that photo because he looked just so terrible, so sad."

In an interview with CNSNews.com, Speakes said he and a team of key personnel were in the Oval Office with Reagan, preparing for the State of the Union address scheduled for delivery that evening, when then-Vice President George Bush and staff member Patrick Buchanan burst into the room with the news.

"Bush blurted out and said the shuttle exploded," Speakes said. "We sat there stunned, not saying anything, for a full minute. Then Reagan said, let's go into the study to turn on the television ... and there it was."

The Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crewmembers aboard, including New Hampshire schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, who would have become the nation's first teacher-in-space.

"Tell them these people have not died in vain, and that we're going to fix [the space program] and keep it going," said Speakes, recounting Reagan's response to his questions about the waiting press.

"We then decided it was imperative he make an address to the nation," Speakes continued.

Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan worked "most of the afternoon," he said, "and by five o'clock, we had transformed the Oval Office into a TV studio," after which the president gave one of his "most stirring" addresses ever.

"I was in Japan on a trip ... and not there as the speech was being written," said Mark Weinberg, who worked in Reagan's press office for eight years. "But Ronald Reagan didn't act for the cameras. He didn't have a different persona in public than he did in private. His speech was heartfelt."

The president's address that evening culminated with a reference to a poem written by World War II pilot John Gillespie Magee, a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, killed in action on Dec. 11, 1941.

"The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives," Reagan said. "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"

Following the speech, Reagan flew to Houston, Tex., and spoke privately with the families of those killed, Speakes said, describing the occasion as "very emotional" and poignant.

"Then he spoke to the whole NASA group, and walked and hugged every parent, every sister, every brother of those astronauts," he said. "That all came from his heart. There's no doubt about it."

But even in the face of such a somber event, politics wove into the picture, Speakes said, recalling how some Democrats accused the administration of "rushing the launch" so that Reagan might be able enhance his image by contacting the astronauts in space during his State of the Union.

"It was so far-fetched, so far from the truth," he said. "But they actually looked back on the telephone calls to check. That was really an odd reaction to have."

Reagan continued to seek answers to the explosion, Weinberg said, who was a member of the investigative commission appointed by the president shortly after the astronauts were killed.

Faulty gasket design was to blame; three years passed before NASA engineers restructured the space shuttle and sent another crew into space.

Read the reflections of CNSNews.com staff who covered the Challenger disaster.