Remembering the Challenger Tragedy

Use our nation's response to the Challenger disaster in order to teach character, as well as science and literary standards.

By Elijah Ammen

Space shuttle

As a high school teacher, my freshmen barely remember the events of September 11th, 2001. It's important in all content areas to make sure that our students understand how that tragedy shaped our nation's foreign policy. In a similar way, we should never forget the influence of the Challenger disaster (and the Columbia tragedy in 2003) on the United States' policy of space exploration and the commitment to scientific advancement that has shaped our modern technology, our medical devices, and much more.

On January 28, 1986, the Challenger shuttle exploded on takeoff due to a technical malfunction. The entire crew of seven was killed in the accident, which happened while it was being televised live. In 2011, the 25th anniversary, both CNN and ABC had retrospectives that looked at the aftermath, including the commission review, the security overhauls, and the shift in space exploration after the tragedy. While there are many aspects of the Challenger that are worth discussing (like crew member, Christa McAuliffe, the first member of the Teacher in Space Project) it is the nation's reaction to the disaster that provides the most material for the classroom.

The Challenger Speech

Ronald Reagan's speech in the wake of the tragedy is an example of the American spirit to mourn tragedies, but to endure and move forward. The video of the nationally televised speech is available online (or here if you can't access YouTube at school). 

From a literary standpoint, the text of the speech is a beautiful example of resolve in the midst of sorrow, ending with an allusion to John Gillespie Magee's poem "High Flight," when Reagan says that the crew of the Challenger "slipped the surly bonds of Earth" to "touch the face of God."

Beyond an analysis of the speech as a rhetorical artifact, you can teach lessons on the changes to the space program as a result of the Challenger investigation and comparative exercises on speeches in times of tragedy. You can also have your class interview people who are old enough to distinctly remember the disaster as well as the speech, and how both affected their lives and the attitude of their communities.

The Future of Space

The most important aspect of the Challenger tragedy is that Americans persevered and continue to send valuable manned and unmanned missions into outer space and onto other planets. While the value of these missions may not be readily visible, the technological benefits are an enormous return on the investment. Ron Garan, a "bloggernaut" who posts from the International Space Station, recently gave a persuasive argument for the value of the space program and its influence on the private sector. It is a very accessible article that could serve as a springboard into class research on technology that has been influenced by space exploration.

While the landing of the Mars rover, Curiosity, made headlines, it's easy to forget that the rover is still operating and sending valuable information back to Earth. You can research its findings, or keep up with it through your preferred social media, such as Facebook, Google+, or Twitter.

In addition, NASA has a wealth of information on the future of exploration and careers in space, as well as a portion of its website completely dedicated to educators.

Whether it's the tragedy of the Challenger, or any other difficult moment in our history, the United States has the resiliency and determination to learn and move forward, while remembering the lives lost in those disasters. It is this blend of compassion and fortitude that makes our country great, and it is this strength of character that needs to be taught to younger generations so that they can follow in the tradition of the great men and women before them.