English 101 DC
“A Time to Mourn”
The purpose of then President Ronald Reagan’s speech on the Challenger disaster was to mourn with his country, to honor the crew who gave their lives, and to remind Americans of their own desire for and pursuit of excellence through such activities as space exploration. He went on camera to bring together a nation which was sad, angry, and tired of fighting a seemingly endless war. He was the President of the greatest country in the world, and even on the eve of disaster the country would rally and continue on. His argument was sound, but it was the structure of his speech, poetic quotations, and his appeal to the raw emotions of the people that persuaded the viewers that evening.
At the height of the Cold War and the space race the desire for Americans to seek out and explore new worlds coincided with their desire to prove to their enemy that they were more capable at everything, including space travel. The Russians had beaten the United States to be the first in space, but America was out to prove it would be the best explorers of space. NASA had recently lost funding and was not terribly popular at this time. The media hype around the Space Shuttle Challenger mission was incredible. The Challenger crew was a diverse group which included for the first time civilians, such as school teacher Christa McAuliffe, the first planned female teacher in space. However, it had experienced many delays on its road to launch.
While millions of Americans, including school children, expecting to see an awe-inspiring historic event watched, the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean, killing its crew of 7. The aftermath was devastating. Networks aired live coverage of the Challenger launch, explosion, and the reactions of the crew’s families as they watched in bleachers mere miles from the launch site.
President Reagan had prepared to speak to both a national and international audience on the night of January 28, but his preparation was for the annual State of the Union address. His speech that evening became known as the “Challenger Disaster Speech.” The target audience was first and foremost the grieving families of the lost Challenger crew and the grieving American public who witnessed the extraordinary event. However, it is clear by his opening address “ ladies and gentlemen“ that Reagan was aware of his words reaching more a mourning nation, but an entire world watching and waiting to see how the United States would respond to the disaster seen . Reagan was aware that this could be a pivotal moment in his career and in the Cold War.
The speech was not meant to appeal much to logos, or logic. Those who watched the disaster aired over and over again on the news were emotional, and Reagan was very aware of this. He approached his audience tactfully, but not tentatively. His duty as president and leader were apparent. He camouflaged his logical remarks with lyrical words meant to comfort and reassure, but he made clear that the crew of the Challenger knew the risk of space flight and willingly took that risk. He made clear that this risk had been taken by great historical figures and would continue to be taken if the United States was to continue to be a great nation. He made clear that tragedy would not end the search for truth, rather the nation would honor the deaths through success.
It is important to note that Reagan started his speech with an enormous amount of trust built up already; at least with the American public. A president is a servant of the country. He has given himself to the position and to the people. Whether or not one agrees with the president’s politics, when the president speaks on live television after an event, the whole nation listens. Americans watched already prepared to trust him, whether they wanted to or not.
Meanwhile, Reagan portrayed himself as truly mournful of the tragic accident which had occurred that morning. His facial expressions of remorse and pain mixed with his disciplined body language, and the natural softness brought on by advanced age allowed viewers to believe in his grief. His words were rich, poetic even. His manner was soft, gentle even.
When Reagan spoke directly to the families of the dead crew and “every man and woman who works for NASA or who worked on (this) mission” he put himself in the vulnerable position of speaking to an individual, as an individual. This had the potential to portray him as not only an empathetic person, but brave and forthright. In other words, a man of great character.
Reagan’s most successful appeal was to the audience’s emotions. He approached the audience on a day of “mourning and remembering” as he and First Lady Nancy Reagan were “pained to the core” by the tragedy of pain shared with the country. His grief was felt in his words and his manner. He empathized with the families of the crew, NASA, and the entire country. Reagan was connecting with his audience to grieve together.
In honoring the deaths of the crew, he reminded the public of the reason for those deaths. The Challenger crew consisted of “daring and brave” explorers with “that special grace, that special spirit that says give me a challenge and I will meet it with joy.” The sacrifices were made purposefully, for the sake of discovering the truth.
Still raw from the knowledge of a national tragedy, Americans were willing to grasp on to reasoning for such a loss. What better reasoning than that which made this country great: exploration and pioneering. “The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave…” he reminded viewers, while pointing out the coincidental anniversary of the death of the renowned explorer Sir Francis Drake who “lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.” Reagan reminded the audience “it’s so hard to dazzle us,” but in space “we’re still pioneers.”
By speaking to the “schoolchildren” who watched the Challenger takeoff, Reagan was able to talk down to the entire audience, as if all were children, but appear to be kindly taking on the task of explaining why painful things happen and why taking a chance on exploration is so important. Reagan also appealed to loyalty and patriotism, touting “we don’t hide…we don’t keep secrets…that’s the way freedom is…we will continue.”
Most appealing to the emotions were the poetic flow of his speech. He started by mourning and remembering. He reached out to the families, emphasized the joys and sorrows of the pursuit of exploration, mentioned our patriotic duties, then once more mourned and remembered. His final words were meant to be recalled for a lifetime. Raising his eyebrows slightly to emphasize the beauty of sacrifice, the President quoted the first and final lines of J.G. Magee’s “High Flight.”
President Reagan had an opportunity in his Challenger speech to move the nation and restore their faith in their country and their president. He did so by appealing to them in an apparently honest, anguished, and poetic manner. His words still strike the heartstrings of listeners, bringing tears to the eyes of those who may not have even lived at the time of the disaster. His goal was cemented, though, in his final words bringing forth the memory of the crew waving goodbye before they “slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.”
Bretthauer Eng 101 DC Essay 2