Ronald Reagan’s “Space Shuttle Challenger”
Since the presidency of George Washington, the people of The United States have turned to the commander in chief in times of distress to receive assurance and hope. Kurt Ritter comments on President Reagan’s address to the nation given on January 28, 1986 saying, “Perhaps no president could have fulfilled the country’s need to mourn and, then, to begin to heal as skillfully as Ronald Reagan (Ritter, 3).” On that morning the space shuttle “Challenger” violently exploded while the nation watched live televised coverage of the shuttle’s launch. President Reagan was scheduled to give his State of the Union Address on that date, but instead he reached out the country in this time of mourning. He spoke from his oval office to heartbroken teachers, children, NASA Space Engineers, and the entire country. President Reagan’s reaction to the tragedy of the challenger guided the United States out of despair and into a new light of hope behind seven fallen heroes. In this essay I will show that Reagan gave our country a new light of hope through his emphasis on Pathos but also incorporating Ethos and Logos in this memorable presentation.
There is no doubt that the when the President of the United States speaks everyone listens to what he has to say. This credibility makes the Ethos of Reagan’s Speech almost unsurpassable. As mentioned Reagan was scheduled to give a State of the Union Address to our country on the evening of January 28, 1986. Instead, he postponed it, because “the story of the day was tragedy. Here he wanted to give an upbeat speech about America moving ahead. It just didn’t fit. It seemed in congruous (Weinraub).” He showed the country that his priority is the emotions of his people by, for the first time in history, postponing on the State of the Union speech in order to discuss the current event. This strengthened the creditability of his argument immensely. He likened the astronauts to pioneers and stated in his speech that “They had a special grace, that special spirit that says, Give me a challenge and I’ll meet it with joy.” With this he appeals to the spiritual side of his audience using the word grace to describe the fallen. Again, “The president concluded by attaching the nation’s sorrow to God’s grace (Ritter, 4).” He said “As they prepared for there journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to touch the face of God.'” Reagan’s use of imagery, gave the people of the United States hope that there loved ones are now with God and gave them hope for a brighter future.
President Reagan moderately used the appeal to logos in his speech but there were a few points that it was relevant. Logos was used to give the country background information on the space program when he said “Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts on the ground. But we’ve never lost an astronaut in flight; we’ve never had a tragedy like this.” He stated this information to convey to the nation that these types of tragedies do not occur often in our space program. He wanted to ease their minds of the thought that this would be a recurring problem. He strengthened the people’s support even furthur for the space program by saying that for “25 years the space program has been dazzling the country with its achievements”. Reagan stated a coincidence or historical event that occurred in his speech as “On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama.” He likened the dedication and pioneer efforts of Drake to those of the deceased astronauts. The president used the logos appeal to strengthen the ethos and pathos appeal with facts and historical input. However, this appeal did add to the reaction of the audience toward returning their emotions toward a more stable state.
Given the situation, a national tragedy, and the tone of President Reagan’s speech, the main appeal to the audience is pathos. After Reagan described the reason for his speaking to the nation on that evening he immediately began to describe the emotions of the day. He sensitively exclaimed, “Today is a day for mourning and remembering.” The tragedy of the “Challenger” was a disturbing subject to all and he stated to the nation, in this sentence, that the nation would mourn together and that no one person would stand alone in their sorrows. “By remarking that he and his wife had been “pained to the core” by the catastrophe, Mr. Reagan established an elegiac tone (Apple). Through his personal connection, he showed the nation that it was acceptable to be emotional about what had happened. He proclaimed the accident as “truly and national loss.” One of the passengers onboard the Challenger was a teacher named Christa McAulliffe and because her presence there was an “unusually wide interest in the space program, particularly among school students (Ritter, 4).” Later in the speech President Reagan “addressed the schoolchildren of America” directly. “I know it is hard to understand,” he told them, “but sometimes painful things like this happen (Ritter, 4).” Then “In a sincere, calm manner, he imparted the events lessen: “It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all a part of taking chances and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave (Ritter, 4).” He explained to the children the reality of the situation and then asked them to be brave and not to grow fainthearted. He later gave the nation a sense of hope for the future by announcing that “nothing ends here”.
Reagan’s speech on the night of January 28, 1986 dramatically “took the first step toward uniting the country in its grief (Ritter, 4)”. Ronald Reagan reached out to the schoolchildren of America and all other citizens of the United States to counsel them in time of tragedy. He gave hope to the nation through emotional and spiritual reference. He was effective in conveying his message but the way his thoughts were organized was in part ineffective. His speech is very unorganized, and he could have ordered his thoughts better. More importantly than disorganization though, Ronald Reagan reached out to a nation that needed him as there president. He gave the people of the United States hope and Reassurance, a task that the President has been expected to do since the beginning of our country.
Apple, R.W. Jr. “President As Healer.” The New York Times 28 Jan. 1986:A2.
Ritter, Kurt, and David Heary. Ronald Reagan: The Great Communicator. Connecticut: Greenwood, 1992.
Sloan, Thomas O. ed. Technical Communication New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Weinraub, Bernard “Reagan Postpones State of Union Speech.” The New York Times 29 Jan. 1986:A9.