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“To Touch the Face of God”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - January 28, 2011

There is no particular Mormon history connection to this post. I simply want to acknowledge the 25th anniversary of the explosion of the shuttle Challenger, and to say again the names of the seven astronauts who were aboard. My memories of that day are as vivid as my memories of 9/11 — there aren’t many days in a lifetime that shock and grieve the way January 28, 1986 did.

This is the speech to the nation made by Ronald Reagan later that day:

Ladies and gentlemen, I planned to speak to you tonight to report on the state of the union. But the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans. Today is a day of mourning and remembering. Nancy and I are pained to the core over this tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss.

Nineteen years ago almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But we’ve never lost an astronaut in flight. We’d never had a tragedy like this. And perhaps we’ve forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle. But they, the Challenger 7, were aware of the dangers and overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly.

We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together. To the families of the seven, we cannot bear as you do the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, “Give me a challenge and I’ll meet it with joy.” They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us.

We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for 25 years, the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.

And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it’s hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted. It belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.

I’ve always had great faith in and respect for our space program. And what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don’t hide our space program. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That’s the way freedom is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute. We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights, and more shuttle crews and yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here. Our hopes and our journeys continue.

I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA or who worked on this mission and tell them, “Your dedication and professionalism have moved and impressed us for decades and we know of your anguish. We share it.”

There’s a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime, the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said: “He lived by the sea, died on it and was buried in it.” Well, today, we can say of the Challenger crew, their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.

The crew of the space shuttle 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.

— Ronald Reagan
January 28, 1986



8 Comments »

  1. I was no great fan of Pres. Reagan, but there were a few moments like this, where he could unite us all with his gifts as an orator. I still remember hearing of this tragedy on the way to work, listening to the news on the radio, and realizing that while our public perception of the shuttle program had lulled us into a false sense of its routine nature, it was anything but routine. Thanks for posting this today.

    Comment by kevinf — January 28, 2011 @ 11:06 am

  2. Thanks, Ardis.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 28, 2011 @ 11:26 am

  3. Thanks for posting this, it is a well-written tribute. I was sitting at work watching events unfold on an orange Bloomberg screen. It shocked us out of complacency.

    Comment by Ellen — January 28, 2011 @ 11:42 am

  4. I was alone in a small law office, listening to it unfold on radio and weeping all day long. I had a much stronger emotional reaction that morning than I did on 9/11, somehow.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 28, 2011 @ 11:59 am

  5. I remember thinking that this was our own “Titanic” moment, when we were reminded that our technology was not infallible. On my lunch hour that day, I drove to the local electronics superstore and stood with lots of other people in the TV department as we took in the non-stop Challenger coverage and the endless replays of the explosion.

    Comment by Mark N. — January 28, 2011 @ 12:27 pm

  6. Still brings tears to my eyes. I love the last line.

    Comment by Carol — January 28, 2011 @ 2:21 pm

  7. I was at my office on Redwood Road and the TV in another office was on. I was shocked at what I saw and wondered if any of the NASA friends that I worked with during my four years with the Apollo program were involved in the shuttle system. How devastating that must have been. As President Reagan said, the astronauts were pioneers in the best sense of the word — and full of courage.

    Comment by CurtA — January 28, 2011 @ 6:43 pm

  8. I still remember so vividly where I was (my school Spanish class) and the shocked stillness in the room as we didn’t dare even think what we saw happened really had happened.

    I can’t believe it’s been 25 years.

    Comment by michelle — January 28, 2011 @ 11:55 pm

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