Twenty-five years ago, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, and all seven of its crew members perished.
It was one of the moments, like the JFK assassination and the 9/11 attacks, which we always remember where we were and what we did in the aftermath of learning the news.
At the time, I was a State House reporter for The News Tribune, and what I remember vividly was the Associated Press taping photos on the walls outside its bureau office – photos of the launch, the crowd cheering the takeoff, and then the smoke plume from the falling aircraft. It was long before the days when the Internet brought breaking news, photos and videos to our computers and telephones. Later in the day, I spoke with members of New Jersey’s Congressional delegation for a sidebar on the state’s reaction to the tragedy.
Over the years, the Challenger disaster became part of a speechwriting lesson I taught as part of a public relations course at Mercer County Community College. I would ask my students to put themselves in the place of Peggy Noonan, who wrote the speech that President Reagan delivered to the nation the evening of the Challenger disaster. Then, after they explained how they would go about preparing the President’s remarks, I would explain the steps that Noonan took, as described in her book What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era.
Noonan made the speech personal by making sure the President mentioned the names of all seven crew members. She made sure he spoke directly to children because so many had been in school watching the shuttle’s launch and explosion on television and because a school teacher had been among the seven astronauts. Noonan also included words reassuring the public that, despite the tragedy, the U.S. would continue to move forward with its space program.
Years later in 2003, when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas on its way back to earth, I was working as Deputy Communications Director for Governor McGreevey. It was a Saturday morning, and as I was watching the initial television reports, something clicked in my head and I realized the Governor was going to need a statement.
I quickly drafted something and got it to the Governor, who was preparing for his annual budget address. After a few tweaks, we were done. The statement went out, and in a matter of minutes, it was being read on TV as part of the coverage.
The short statement was a far cry from the classic speech that Noonan crafted. But knowing how she went about her task on that fateful day in 1986 made my job a little bit easier when another space shuttle tragedy took place 17 years later.