In the Wake of the Challenger Disaster, President Ronald Reagan Says There Are Problems With the Space Shuttle Program That Must Be Fixed for It to Proceed

He finesses the situation, trying not to disappoint a friend who was part of the civilians in space program, a program that would be canceled because of Challenger

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“We do have some problems…Now, of course, we’ve had the recent finding by Jim that the existing shuttles have 44 things that need correcting before they fly again…Let me say that I’m for going ahead with a shuttle unless the things I’ve mentioned here make it impractical and unwise.”

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In the Wake of the Challenger Disaster, President Ronald Reagan Says There Are Problems With the Space Shuttle Program That Must Be Fixed for It to Proceed

He finesses the situation, trying not to disappoint a friend who was part of the civilians in space program, a program that would be canceled because of Challenger

“We do have some problems…Now, of course, we’ve had the recent finding by Jim that the existing shuttles have 44 things that need correcting before they fly again…Let me say that I’m for going ahead with a shuttle unless the things I’ve mentioned here make it impractical and unwise.”

The space shuttle Challenger became the second shuttle to reach space, when it was launched successfully in April 1983. It successfully completed nine milestone missions during its nearly three years of service. In total, the spacecraft spent 62 days, 7 hours, 56 minutes and 22 seconds in space. Challenger hosted the first spacewalk of the space shuttle program on April 7, 1983, and carried the first American female and first black astronauts.

Before it was launched again, NASA created an initiative to give people from all walks of life a chance to experience spaceflight firsthand. The first such civilian was Christa McAuliffe, a teacher, who had been selected from 11,000 teacher applicants for the historic chance. It was a cold morning on Jan. 28, 1986, when Challenger was supposed to fly into space on its latest mission. Temperatures dipped below freezing and some of the shuttle’s engineers were concerned about the integrity of the seals on the solid rocket boosters in such low temperatures. Nonetheless, Challenger launched at 11:38 a.m. Eastern time in front of more media attention than usual, since it was carrying McAuliffe, who was planning to give lessons while in orbit. But McAuliffe and the rest of the crew never made it. In full view of the television cameras, Challenger broke up 73 seconds after launch.

“Flight controllers here are looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction,” the NASA launch commentator said, as pieces of the shuttle fell from the sky into the Atlantic. Salvage crews spent several weeks recovering pieces of the shuttle and carefully bringing up the remains of the seven astronauts. Remains that could be identified were turned over to the families, while the rest were buried in a monument to the Challenger crew at Arlington National Cemetery on May 20, 1986.

Challenger’s explosion changed – one might say devastated – the space shuttle program in several ways. Plans to fly civilians in space (such as teachers or journalists) were shelved for the next 22 years, until Barbara Morgan, who was McAuliffe’s backup, flew aboard Endeavour in 2007. Satellite launches were shifted from the shuttle to reusable rockets. Additionally, astronauts were pulled off duties such as repairing satellites, and the Manned Maneuvering Unit was not flown again, to better preserve astronaut safety.

Douglas Morrow was a Hollywood screenwriter and film producer. He earned an Academy Award for his script for 1949’s The Stratton Story, a biography of Baseball player Monty Stratton, who was disabled in a hunting accident. Reagan, who catapulted to fame as an actor, became friends with Morrow when Morrow sought to cast him in that part, remained friends throughout the Hollywood days and kept in contact through most of his presidency. Morrow was a part of the civilians in space program, and he was not about to let the Challenger disaster defeat him. He wrote to Reagan asking for a commitment and timetable for continuing it.

Typed letter signed, on White House letterhead, Washington, May 29, 1986, to Morrow, with Reagan being non-committal, knowing or expecting the program might be shelved, but wanting to let his old friend down easy. “Just a quick line to answer your May 21st letter. I can’t give you a specific reply on the new shuttle but can tell you my desire is to go forward if it is at all possible…Our plate is really full right now, what with tax reform, budget, Saudi Arabia and Nicaragua. And, of course, NASA. I think things will begin to move with Jim Fletcher [a previous NASA administrator who was brought back to lead the Challenger investigation] on board. We do have some problems, the financial one of course, but a number of others such as the backlog of various machines to be put in space. We’ve only been able to touch on that and whether a spurt in non—manned launchers should be used to reduce the backlog. Now, of course, we’ve had the recent finding by Jim that the existing shuttles have 44 things that need correcting before they fly again.

“The upshot, Doug, is that we haven’t come together to make a final decision yet, but such a meeting is on the schedule. Again, let me say that I’m for going ahead with a shuttle unless the things I’ve mentioned here make it impractical and unwise. I’ll keep you posted.”

The Challenger disaster was one of the milestone’s of Reagan’s presidency. His famous eulogy for the Challenger astronauts is considered by many his greatest speech in office. He ended by saying, “The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”

In actuality, though, Challenger’s explosion devastated the space shuttle program in several ways. Plans to fly civilians in space (such as teachers or journalists) were shelved for the next 22 years, until Barbara Morgan, who was McAuliffe’s backup, flew aboard Endeavour in 2007. Satellite launches were shifted from the shuttle to reusable rockets. Additionally, astronauts were pulled off duties such as repairing satellites, and the Manned Maneuvering Unit was not flown again, to better preserve astronaut safety. Morrow never did get into space.

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