Twenty Five Years Ago Today

Twenty-five years ago today, the American space program came crashing to Earth in a horrible accident.

It seems like yesterday, but it was twenty-five years ago today that the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch, killing all seven astronauts, including New Hampshire school teacher Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first civilian to orbit the Earth.

When I first heard the news, I was walking out of a high school mid-term and eager to make my way home after the end of a half-day of school. When one of my classmates told me what happened, I didn’t believe it at first. The Space Shuttle ? Exploding ? Impossible. Then, I got out to my car and turned on the radio and the reality of the situation was made clear in seconds. It was gone, and so were the astronauts. I went straight home and spent the rest of the day watching television. This was in the day before cable news, so Americans were limited to what ABC, CBS, and NBC could give them and woke up the next morning to the tragedy played out on the front pages of America’s newspapers.

If you didn’t live through it, its hard to explain what it meant at the time. It was, in many ways, the mid-80s equivalent of September 11th — a national tragedy played out (mostly) live on television and a symbol of American might destroyed in the blink of an eye. Later investigation would reveal incompetence, bad design, and bad decision making on the part of NASA. There would be a commission appointed to investigate the tragedy headed by Neil Armstrong. Changes would be made and we would be told that things were different; only to find out 17 years later, almost to the day, that this was not the case. But on that day, all that mattered was the fact that the American space program’s near-flawless reputation had been forever changed and that seven astronauts were dead.

President Reagan was supposed to have given the State of the Union address on the night of January 28th, 1986. Instead, he spoke from the Oval Office:

The poem that Reagan quoted in the final lines of the address is called High Flight and was written by George Magee, a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II. During the days after the Challenger disaster it acheived a new notoriety as it seemed to communicate what had happened in the skies above Florida:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds,-and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless falls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, nor eer eagle flew-
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high, untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

I remember watching the speech as well as I remember the other events of that day. As he did on so many other occasions, Reagan found the right words to communicate what we were all thinking that night.

FILED UNDER: Science & Technology
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed for too young in July 2021.


  1. Franklin says:

    Oddly, I was home sick from elementary school that day, and watched it unfold. Like 9/11, you never forget where you were when you heard the news.

  2. Franklin says:

    Oh, and Reagan nailed it. Wish I had seen that 25 years ago.

  3. John Burgess says:

    I was on assignment to Damascus, Syria at the time, responsible for press and cultural relations. That evening—Syria is seven hours ahead of EST—I received a call from the Embassy’s Duty Officer advising me of the event, then one from State Dept’s Operations Center giving me what details were known so that I could answer media queries.

    What was a bit surprising was the extensive—and sympathetic—coverage Syrian and Jordanian media gave the tragedy. Thousands lined up to sign a book of condolences at the Embassy over the following week.

  4. tom p says:

    I remember it as a punch to the gut… barely made it thru work the rest of the day.

  5. DC Loser says:

    I was the officer in charge of a manitenance team on a Minuteman launch facility at Minot AFB, a few miles south of the Canadian border that day. I came out of the silo to have lunch in my truck and turned on the radio. I had the powerful Canadian station in Winnipeg on and they broadcast the news. At first I was in disbelief in what I was hearing, and then it all sank in. The rest of the day (and that week) I was stunned. It’s one of those events I’ll always remember where I was when it happened.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    I was in a bowling alley in Fargo, North Dakota interviewing the proprietor for my client, Brunswick. There were large TV monitors everywhere (the scoring device monitors could be used as TV monitors) and everyone there watched the news in shocked and saddened disbelief.

    Agreed with DC Loser: it’s one of those events that people remember where they were when they heard the news.

  7. Ben says:

    I watched it live on television in my first grade class. It was a big deal in my area, because Christa McAuliffe’s school was only like 25 miles away. I was too young to understand the severity of what I was watching. But the look on the teacher’s face is what ended up sticking with me that day.

  8. jfoobar says:

    I *wish* it was only 20 years ago today. It was 25 years ago today.

  9. jfoobar says:

    FYI, referring to the error in the first sentence, not in the title.

  10. Jack Jones says:

    Things like this really do make a person feel old. I remember them bringing in a TV to class so we could watch.