Notes on the great communicator (1)

Thirty years ago this week, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after take off. Tragically, all seven crew members were killed.

Challenger was one of those ‘did you see that’ moments of the 1980s. An horrific illustration of the great risks of space travel. It was also a tragedy captured live on national US TV networks and beamed around the world.
This wasn’t just any shuttle mission – this was supposed to be a triumph of NASA public relations strategy. Challenger was carrying Christa McAuliffe, a small town school teacher picked from thousands of would-be astronauts to join the shuttle crew.

McAuliffe had become a US celebrity, the launch had become a national event and was beamed live to classrooms across the country. Thousands of children watched the seven crew members die. 

It’s hard to overstate the shock of this disaster to the American public. For many the Shuttle was a symbol of US collective engineering genius and invincibility. Its loss, and subsequent investigation that found fault with NASA culture and communications, were profoundly affecting.

When Reagan addressed the nation on television at 5pm that night, he echoed perfectly that feeling of shock and loss. In a short speech, staring directly into the camera, he pays moving tribute to those who died.

But his address is more than just a tribute, it’s also a clever piece of positioning summing up perfectly and clearly his position and core beliefs. You can see it in full below.

Brilliantly written by columnist Peggy Noonan the speech does three things:

It restates the 40th president’s belief in the Shuttle Programme:

“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.”

It communicates Reagan’s pride in democracy and open Government:
“We don’t hide our space programme. 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.”
It recognises the shock and loss felt by many Americans:
“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…the future doesn’t belong to the faint hearted, it belongs to the brave.”
And the speech finishes with a great example of perfectly placed soaring rhetoric – quoted direct from a World War II sonnet. From anybody else that might seem false, but Reagan – with his almost shy, folksy style – manages to make it work. 
“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’.

But for me, the best insight comes earlier in the address as he reminds his audience of the danger and ‘newness’ of space flight after earlier comparing the astronauts to the early explorers of the Americas.

“We’ve grown use to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us…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.”


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