Twenty years ago, on the morning of January 28, 1986, a faulty O-ring seal in one of the Space Shuttle Challenger's booster rockets started a chain reaction that ended seventy-three seconds later in the loss of the shuttle and the deaths of all seven of its crewmembers. I didn't like Reagan much (obviously), but the speech he gave following the shuttle explosion is one of the greatest political speeches of the past several decades. To wit:
There's a coincidence today. On this day three hundred and ninety years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, "He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it." Well, today, we can say of the Challenger crew: their dedication was, like Drake's, complete.The quoted lines reference a poem written in 1941 by a nineteen-year-old Spitfire pilot named John Magee. Magee died a few months later, prompting his father to forward the poem to the Library of Congress, where it was included in an exhibition in 1942. And from thence to fame. (To this day, "High Flight" remains the official poem [who knew there were such things?] of both the Royal Canadian Air Force [for whom Magee flew] and the Royal Air Force [at whose base he was killed].)
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 their journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."