The Challenger explosion on January 28, 1986 not only shocked millions watching it on TV, it threw America's ambitions for space into upheaval.
The Reagan administration had had every reason to want to make space travel "ordinary." They wanted to privatize it, transferring space adventures from NASA control rooms to corporate boardrooms. The decision to include Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher as one of the space shuttle's crew was intended to prove that a space traveler could be an "ordinary person."
The Challenger disaster threatened all of that. Space travel was not so "ordinary" after all. That night, however, in one of his most famous speeches, Reagan argued that, in America, even great disasters can be "ordinary." Saying that he laid the rhetorical groundwork for promoting the idea that outer space should be commercial space.
In a 1983 essay, George Keyworth, Reagan's science advisor, expressed the ideal, if not the reality, of the Reagan administration's use of space. "How can the United States fashion a space program that addresses today's national aspirations and needs?" he asked. He provided his own answer:
Like an evolving company, the US space program has options for both horizontal and vertical expansion. . . I would characterize the evolution of commercial launch services as a kind of vertical expansion. Conversely, horizontal expansion would require revolutionary new ventures in space exploration. These would be the kind of initiatives that open new frontiers, develop new technologies, or recapture the sense of national unity that Apollo did.
But in order for space to become an economic frontier, it had to undergo a certain familiarization. A vision of a vast and dangerous frontier had to be reimagined so that investors would be willing to take financial risks. NASA's so-called Teacher in Space Program was in keeping with this revision. Drawing on an age-old American means of domesticating the frontier, it put a New England woman, Christa McAuliffe, on the space shuttle Challenger. Space travel, as the publicity around her flight claimed, was now safe.
The Challenger explosion clearly posed a serious challenge to the Reagan Plan. The shuttle's visible and tragic demise would quash the hopes of those in the Reagan administration who sought a much more privatized space program, and NASA would take years to recover (if it ever did). But, the ideology -- of economic expansion, technological revolution, venture and growth -- survived, and eventually thrived thanks to Reagan's audacious speech the very night of the disaster.
Even as it eulogized the seven victims of the Challenger explosion, the address functioned as a vigorous apologia for the American-style publicity that was behind NASA's 1960s adventures.
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.
In this way, Reagan framed the shocking and manifest character of the Challenger disaster as a normal product of political freedom. Publicized disasters, Reagan argued, have a direct ideological function -- that is, through their visibility we are reminded of "the way freedom is." Thus, Reagan went on to insist that the space shuttle program would continue.
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 journeys continue.
From an argument for the importance of visibility, he moved seamlessly to promise economic progress in space exploration, complete with private citizens.
Reagan did not save NASA in the wake of the Challenger disaster. Far from it, he made the case for accepting the intrusion of high-risk venture capital into the upper atmosphere and beyond. Today, while NASA tries to convince Congress to keep on funding its Mars ambitions, Elon Musk's company, Space X, has become the emblem of the future of space. And Musk has competition from other space entrepreneurs: Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, owns Blue Origin, a spaceflight company, and Richard Branson has big ambitions for Virgin Galactic to take paying passengers into space "with a goal of democratizing access to space." Branson claims to be back on track to become the first commercial space service despite a devastating set back in 2014 which killed one of the two test pilots on board.
In these and other adventures lie proof that Reagan's hopes for the commercialization of space travel survive, now a full 30 years after the Challenger disaster.
Ned O'Gorman, a Fellow this year at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, writes more about Reagan and outer space in The Iconoclastic Imagination: Image, Catastrophe, and Economy in America from the Kennedy Assassination to September 11, published by the University of Chicago Press.