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Some context is needed here in order to fully grasp the impact of the Challenger disaster. The growth of the NASA space exploration program was something that grew leaps and bound in the 1980s. In the most symbolic of ways, it was seen that NASA's growth and prosperity mirrored America's growth and prosperity in the 1980s. There was an unbridled sense of enthusiasm and zeal in NASA and its symbolic implications for America. This was a time when kids actually grew up to say, "I want to become an astronaut," demonstrating that the space program was actually becoming a part of the American cultural experience. The 1986 Challenger disaster brought all of that to a screeching halt. There were a couple of unique elements behind this launch. The most obvious of them was the presence of schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe, striving to become the first teacher launched in space. The other development which proved to be prophetic were the frigid temperatures in Florida that put back the launch a couple of days. The disaster itself was one of those moments that made Americans stop and catch their breath. Of particular mention would be the number of children who either watched the event live on CNN or Nasa TV due to McAuliffe's ascent into space, or caught it on replay within the first two hours that followed it. Kids went home for lunch and came back to school telling their friends of the horror they saw on television. It happened so quickly, and with so much force that Americans could not reconcile the image they were seeing on screen with the smiling faces of the astronauts who boarded the vessel, armed with the passion and enthusiasm that so many Americans had come to associate with the space program. Reagan captured this moment in his eulogy to the fallen astronauts:
On the day of the disaster, our nation held a vigil by our television sets. In one cruel moment, our exhilaration turned to horror; we waited and watched and tried to make sense of what we had seen. That night, I listened to a call-in program on the radio: people of every age spoke of their sadness and the pride they felt in `our astronauts.' Across America, we are reaching out, holding hands, finding comfort in one another.
The sacrifice of your loved ones has stirred the soul of our nation and, through the pain, our hearts have been opened to a profound truth - the future is not free, the story of all human progress is one of a struggle against all odds. We learned again that this America, which Abraham Lincoln called the last best hope of man on Earth, was built on heroism and noble sacrifice. It was built by men and women like our seven star voyagers, who answered a call beyond duty, who gave more than was expected or required, and who gave it with little thought to worldly reward.
Interestingly enough, Reagan also pointed to Astronaut Dick Scobee's words that in the event of a disaster, he hoped that the NASA program would not be cut short. In the end, the Challenger disaster resulted in an three year stoppage of all missions, as NASA took heavy hits in the realm of public relations and scientific inquiry, as it admitted a lapse in judgment on several design issues and rushing the launch over the voices of dissenting scientists, demonstrating a capacity to embrace the ends of scientific progress rather than placing primacy on the process, itself. The end result was that Americans saw fallibility in NASA, a bond that was never fully repaired.
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