Friday, January 28, 2011

Reagan's Finest Hour

I was never even close to being an admirer of Ronald Reagan when he was president.

But I give him credit for what he did on this day 25 years ago when the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated shortly after takeoff, and all seven members of the crew were killed.

Others have been doing the same today.

Carl Cannon of Politics Daily writes that Reagan's speech to the nation late that afternoon was "perhaps the most inspiring of his presidency."

I always felt that way about it. And I think the reason why it was the most inspiring was because it was stripped of ideology.

Reagan's true believers would probably cite other speeches that he gave as more inspiring because those speeches spoke to their core beliefs about taxes and defense and co–existing with the Soviet Union. And I'm sure that is the kind of speech Reagan would have delivered if he had proceeded with his original plans to give his State of the Union address that night.

Ultimately, because of what had happened, he postponed his address for a week and gave a hastily written speech from the Oval Office that afternoon, a speech that spoke of the future and pioneers and courage — things with which everyone could agree.

At the time, it was my understanding that Reagan had planned to mention, at some point in his State of the Union address, that the first teacher in space was preparing to conduct a lesson from space that America's schoolchildren were scheduled to watch later that week.

There was even talk that the administration had been putting pressure on NASA to proceed with the launch. It had already been postponed several times because of bad weather and other factors, and the word was that the administration was eager to capitalize on the space program and the fact that a teacher was on board the shuttle in the State of the Union address.

Consequently, the story went, the administration had been leaning on NASA to light that candle.

I don't know if that played any kind of role in what happened or not. And I don't know if the State of the Union speech that Reagan gave a week later differed substantially from the one he had planned to give. Matter of fact, I don't recall anything about the State of the Union speech he eventually gave.

The things that I do know are these:
  • On the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, the temperature at the launch site was around freezing. It was right at the minimum temperature that was acceptable prior to launch, and engineers were concerned about the affect of the temperature on the solid rocket boosters (SRBs). The SRBs provided more than four–fifths of the thrust that a launch required.

    As it turned out, their concerns were well founded. An O–ring seal in the right SRB failed. To observers, it looked like the shuttle exploded. But those who knew more about the science of space travel could tell you that what everyone saw was a rather rapid sequence of events that occurred and caused the "launch vehicle" to break up.

    Technically, the statement by the launch officer that there had been no explosion was correct. But that knowledge was far from consoling to those watching in person or on TV. If anything, the knowledge that some or all of the crew members may have been alive as the shuttle plunged to the ocean in an uncontrolled dive for more than two minutes was even more terrifying. What must they have endured in that time?

  • Six months after the Challenger disaster, a commission that was charged with the responsibility of investigating the event and determining the time and cause of the crew members' deaths reported that it could not precisely establish either.

    The shuttle had been designed to withstand atmospheric re–entry, and it had withstood the disintegration of the launch vehicle. It was not likely, the commission reported, that the breakup had caused their deaths — or even serious injury.

    But the shuttle had been cut loose from the vehicle that was supposed to propel it into space, leaving it without power, and so it tumbled back to earth. The shuttle had no escape system so the crew was trapped.

    It took nearly three minutes for the shuttle to crash into the ocean, at which point all seven crew members almost surely died, if they had not died already due to a lack of oxygen in a depressurized cabin.

    Whether any or all of the crew members remained conscious until the shuttle slammed into the sea will never be known. They found evidence that suggested that some of them may have been conscious, at least for awhile, but the actual causes of their deaths could not be determined.
It was with as–yet unresolved issues like these hanging over their heads that shocked and grief–stricken Americans turned to their president for words of comfort.

And then another thing that I know to be true happened. Reagan spoke for five minutes and soothed everyone, regardless of their politics.

It had been a traumatic day for me, just as it had been for everyone else.

Like September 11, it began as an ordinary Tuesday. In those days, I was working nights on the copy desk of a metropolitan newspaper, and my days off happened to be Monday and Tuesday so I was right smack dab in the middle of my "weekend."

It was my habit in those days to do a load of laundry on Tuesday so I would have plenty of clothes ready for the start of my work week on Wednesday night, and that's what I was doing that Tuesday morning.

I had just retrieved a load from the laundry room in my apartment complex, and I was folding clothes in my living room. My habit was to have on the TV or my stereo when I was doing things like that and, for whatever reason, I had chosen to have on my TV that morning.

I had CNN on, mostly as background, and they announced that they would be switching to the shuttle liftoff momentarily.

Oh, good, I remember thinking. Some actual news to watch.

I remember standing there, my jaw hanging open, as I watched those plumes of smoke twisting crazily in the Florida sky — while a little dot that later turned out to be the space shuttle drifted silently down to its watery grave.

Space travel had changed a lot since I was a child. When I was small in the 1960s, a space mission received extensive, virtually uninterrupted coverage from all three major networks, even if it really didn't amount to much. Space travel was new and mysterious, and no one knew what dangers lurked out there, even those who studied space and knew a lot more about it than most Americans.

There was a reverence for space travel among people — almost as if the very act of leaving our planet and venturing into space amounted to an unauthorized intrusion into heaven that might rouse God's wrath if he caught us doing it.

Perhaps part of that came from the shared national experiences of a fatal fire in an Apollo capsule in 1967 and then an aborted moon mission in 1970. In those days, Americans knew there were dangers involved in space travel.

But, by 1986, that reverence was gone, replaced by a kind of cockiness. People seemed to take space travel for granted. It must have been very much like the attitude of people at the time the Titanic was launched — a sense that man's ingenuity had conquered nature.

Anyway, prior to Jan. 28, 1986, the major networks had stopped devoting air time to shuttle launches, but they were on hand when Challenger lifted off — not because of any perceived risk but because of the historic nature of the launch. A civilian teacher would be on board.

Most Americans who were living in 1986 probably thought of space travel as routine. And who could blame them? With each space mission in nearly 16 years, it seemed to get easier. The splashdowns that had been so familiar to the people of my generation had been totally eliminated by the implementation of the space shuttle, which could glide into an airstrip after re–entry just like a commercial airline landing at the local airport.

No carriers had to be deployed. No helicopters had to be used to retrieve the crew and the capsule. No muss, no fuss.

No big deal.

When the Challenger was lost on this day a quarter of a century ago, it was a wakeup call. And it wasn't a pleasant awakening.

Reagan helped Americans over the shock in the hours just following the disaster.

Then he did it again three days later at the memorial service in Houston.

I remember talking about it with a co–worker who happened to be a strong Reagan supporter. He and I had argued over the 1984 presidential election on a number of occasions so he knew how I felt.

When I told him that I appreciated what Reagan had done, he understood that I was sincere about that.

My feelings about Reagan as a president hadn't changed. I still disagreed with most of his policies. But I think my feelings about him as a human being did change — sometimes in almost imperceptible ways.

Whatever the truth of all that may be, this much is certain. I will always give him full credit for what he did 25 years ago today.

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