A Challenger memory

The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1996. Photo credit: NASA

The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. Photo credit: NASA

I was a high school student when the space shuttle Challenger exploded after takeoff 27 years ago yesterday.

I still remember the shock and horror of that accident. I also remember the extraordinary, consoling beauty of Pres. Reagan’s address to the nation, crafted by his speechwriter Peggy Noonan. His speech on the evening news was a brilliant consideration of grief and the risks of space exploration that built to this powerful climax:

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”

At the time, I thought those final words belonged to Reagan himself (and his speechwriter). Surly bonds. I didn’t know some of the words were in quotes. I didn’t know that they belonged to an American aviator, John Gillespie Magee, Jr., a poet who died during World War II.

Here, in the wake of this sad anniversary, is the full text of Magee’s poem, “High Flight,” which supplied Reagan with the perfect words to reflect the sorrow and dignity of that terrible day:

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,

I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air….

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.

Where never lark, or even eagle flew —

And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

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4 responses

  1. Your comment reminds me of a line of Walker Percy’s about faith and religion: he said you find it in the world’s “cruel radiance.” That definitely applies to the shuttle accident, and so much else.

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