The Challenger Space Shuttle and President Reagan’s Response: Research and Assignment Guide

On January 28, 1986, the nation watched as the Challenger space shuttle launched. 73 seconds after it took off, the Challenger broke apart, killing all seven astronauts on board. This year marks the 35th anniversary of the tragedy. 

This research and assignment guide looks at the shuttle, the first teacher in space Christa McAuliffe, and President Reagan’s response as the nation mourned. To see a video lecture of this presentation from our Presidential Primary Sources distance learning series, click here. 

a teacher in space

Christa McAuliffe, a history teacher from Concord High School in New Hampshire, was picked from over 11,000 applicants for NASA’s First Teacher program. “It’s not often that a teacher is at a loss for words,” she said when she was announced as the first teacher in space. She went on to say that she had become close friends with the other nine teachers, and though it was one body going up into space, she was taking ten souls with her. 

Christa wanted to humanize the space program by giving the perspective of a non-astronaut. She had plans to record herself teaching her curriculum from the space station and transmitting back to Earth so they could be taught to classrooms all around the world . She believed that by traveling in the shuttle, she could encourage her students to better understand science and space. 

Because the Teacher In Space program was being launched for the first time, students across the nation and even the world tuned in with excitement to observe the take-off of the Challenger.

january 28th, 1986

On January 28th, 1986, a crowd gathered at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and across the country people were turning on their televisions, eagerly awaiting the launch of the Challenger shuttle. After experiencing a weather delay once, the American people were excited to finally see the shuttle start its mission. As everyone watched, the shuttle and the seven astronauts inside it began the journey into the sky.

 At 11:39 a.m. EST, barely 73 seconds after liftoff, the shuttle, fuel tank, and solid rocket boosters disintegrated in an explosive plume of white smoke 40,000 feet in the atmosphere. It was the first time NASA had lost astronauts in flight, and the country was devastated.

a president’s response

As the nation’s leader, President Reagan decided to address the country about the Challenger tragedy. Putting aside his scheduled State of the Union address before Congress, the President instead delivered an Oval Office address to comfort the people as the nation mourned. 

For this speech, he spoke of the great explorer Sir Francis Drake, reminding the people that the dedication of both Drake and the Challenger astronauts was admirable, and will not be forgotten.

In addition to his speech both on the day of the disaster and at the memorial service in Houston, President Reagan wrote letters to those that had lost loved ones. Many wrote back saying how much the President’s words meant to them.

For Students and Educators:

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Christa McAuliffe and the other Challenger astronauts inspired our country. Who’s someone that inspires you? 
  2. In this speech, President Reagan states, “The future does not belong to the fainthearted. It belongs to the brave.” What do you think this means? Do you agree with this statement? Think for a moment about something that you have done that was hard but rewarding. Pat yourself on the back for doing something brave. If you’d like, write a paragraph about your own experience.

Assignments for Further Research:

  • Look more into the aftermath of the Challenger explosion (you can also look into other space program accidents as well) – what did NASA change in light of what happened? How did they make their shuttles safer for astronauts? (This NARA blog post about the Challenger has information that can help with this question.)
  • We talked about Christa McAuliffe in this article – research one of the other members of the Challenger crew. What were some of their goals?
  • Research the history of America’s space program. Why was the program often titled the space “race?” What were we racing to do?

Additional Information:

Our Education website has multiple assignments relating both to the Challenger and to President Reagan’s speechmaking. Click here to view those documents and files.

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