On a replay, they saw the Challenger explode.
“It was a very traumatic experience,” Reagan remembered.
The lunch with anchors was canceled. But at 1 p.m., Reagan spoke with them briefly about the tragedy. He emphasized how horrible the event had been, how all America was now “more than saddened.” He noted that it was the first such in-flight explosion in space program history, and said he continued to have confidence in those who ran the program.
He said he could not get the husband and children of science teacher Christa McAuliffe, who had been on the shuttle, out of his mind. He said he could not get the families of any of the astronauts out of his mind.
Asked what he would say to the children of the nation who had seen the horrible event, he said, “Make it plain to them that life does go on and you don’t back up and quit some worthwhile endeavor because of tragedy.”
At the time of this impromptu press conference, Reagan thought the State of the Union address scheduled for that night would go on. But shortly thereafter the plan changed. Reagan would make a short address to the nation instead.
Chief of Staff Regan, when an emotional speech was in order, sometimes said, “Get that girl . . . you know, have that girl do that.”
So that’s what they did. They got that girl – speechwriter Peggy Noonan, who crafted an address for the ages.