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Challenger explosion: How President Reagan responded

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Bill Fitzpatrick / Courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Library

(Read caption) President Reagan and his staff, like most Americans, were glued to their television sets in the wake of the Challenger explosion, waiting for news and watching replays of the disaster. (left to right) Ronald Reagan, James Poindexter, Pat Buchanan, Alfred Kingon, Don Regan, Edward Djerejian

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It was shortly before noon on January 28, 1986. President Ronald Reagan was in the Oval Office, preparing for a traditional pre-State of the Union luncheon with television news anchors. Then, as Reagan remembered it, Vice President Bush and National Security Advisor John Poindexter strode into the room with terrible news.

“All they could say at the time was that they had received a flash that the space shuttle had exploded,” Reagan said later.

In that flash, US history changed. The space program had suffered its most dire tragedy yet, with its fate perhaps now hanging in the balance. And President Reagan himself – with no warning – faced a pivotal moment of his presidency.

Reagan and his aides crowded into an adjoining room to watch the unfolding tragedy on a nearby TV. A photo taken at the moment shows them, stunned, looking down at the screen – Chief of Staff Don Regan, his face twisted; Assistant to the President Pat Buchanan, arms crossed, brow furrowed; NSC chief Poindexter glum; and the president himself, jaw set, hands together. Reagan looks as if he is already preparing himself for the task to come.

On a replay, they saw the Challenger explode.

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