Space: They Slipped the Surly Bonds of Earth to Touch the Face of God

In 73 seconds, a new era in space travel explodes into a searing nightmare


    Jan. 28, 1986 TIME Cover: Space Shuttle Challenger

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    When asked about the State of the Union speech, Reagan replied, "There could be no speech without mentioning this. But you can't stop governing the nation because of a tragedy of this kind. So, yes, one will continue." Leaders on Capitol Hill, however, immediately sensed the incongruity of an upbeat national address at such a time. House Republican Leader Robert Michel telephoned Chief of Staff Donald Regan to urge a delay. Regan phoned House Speaker Tip O'Neill and Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole. Both strongly advised a postponement, and the White House agreed. Spokesman Larry Speakes announced that the address would wait a week, until this Tuesday.

    Instead, Reagan delivered a poignant and graceful televised tribute to "the Challenger Seven" late Tuesday afternoon. "They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths," he said. "They wished to serve, and they did--they served all of us." Addressing himself directly to the nation's schoolchildren who had been watching, Reagan added, "I know it's hard to understand that 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."

    On Capitol Hill, Speaker O'Neill recessed the House and, shaking his head, could only mutter, "Terrible thing. Terrible thing." He issued a statement expressing his awe of the space pioneers: "We salute those who died performing exploits that people my age grew up reading about in comic books."

    Utah Republican Jake Garn, a former Navy pilot and the first civilian official to go into space (aboard the shuttle Discovery last April), could barely speak. "These were my friends," he said. "Mike Smith was my mother hen." Smith had been specifically assigned to help ready Garn for his flight. Garn explained that all the astronauts were fully aware of the risks. "We never talked about it. We always assumed that if it happened, it would happen to somebody else." Recalled Ohio Democrat John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth: "We used to speculate, the first group of seven, how many of us would be alive after the program." (One of them, Gus Grissom, died in a 1967 fire on a launch pad.) His voice thick, he added, "We always knew there would be a day like this. We're dealing with speeds and powers and complexities we've never dealt with before. This was a day we wish we could kick back forever."

    Glenn was among those space experts who had argued that the shuttle program should be devoted solely to research and that only experts who could contribute to that purpose should occupy the limited spots available on the hugely expensive flights. But after a highly successful series of missions in 1983, James Beggs, the NASA administrator, decided that the time was ripe to select a "citizen observer-participant." One clear aim: to build broader public support for the funding of the shuttles.

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