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We Shall Never Forget Them…As They Slipped The Surly Bonds Of Earth To Touch The Face Of God

January 28, 2016

Elder Bliss, Elder Scott, come here.

I was a 21 year old Mormon Missionary serving in Orange County, California. My companion, Elder Scott and I rented a room in the home of a young couple in the local congregation. Our landlady was ironing something in the living room as she watched TV. As missionaries, we didn’t normally watch TV. It was a little after 8:30 in the morning and we were preparing to head out for the day. 

I don’t remember what we did that day. I don’t remember the name of the landlady. I don’t remember much at all about that day 30 years ago. I will never forget walking into that room and seeing the televised images of the beautiful blue sky, and the corkscrewing white trails from the rocket boosters. 

Thrity years ago today, the Challenger space shuttle blew up, killing the seven astronauts, including Christy McAuliffe. She was not trained as an astronaut. She was a teacher. Her presence on the space shuttle that morning was an indication of how routine the trips had become. She was going to teach some classes from space. Millions of school kids were watching the launch live to wish her well. 

It would be nearly three years before we put another shuttle into space. And we would never again take space flight for granted. My kids, like many other children around the United States attended an elementary school with a McAuliffe Space Center. The Space Center, as simply they called it, was a combination LARP (live action role play) and space simulator. They flew “missions.” They met “aliens.” They dealt with “disasters.” If they reacted successfully their mission was a success and they lived. If they failed, they “died.” They are older now and they  remember the space center fondly. They do not remember it was the McAuliffe Space Center. And if they did, they wouldn’t remember who she was. We’ve had other disasters to mourn as a nation. The Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003 where we lost another seven astronaut hits. And of course, the events of September 11th, which while not involving the space program, was a time when the nation collectively grieved. 

For those of us alive on that day 30 years ago today, the images will never fade, but we may need to occasionally be reminded of the faces.

President Reagan was scheduled to deliver the State of the Union Speech on that night so many years ago. Instead he gave us one of the most moving speeches of the 20th Century, as he paid tribute to the challenger Seven. 

Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d planned to speak to you tonight to report on the state of the Union, but the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans. Today is a day for mourning and remembering. Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss.

Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But we’ve never lost an astronaut in flight. We’ve never had a tragedy like this.

And perhaps we’ve forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle. But they, the Challenger Seven, were aware of the dangers, but overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe.

We mourn their loss as a nation together.

For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, “Give me a challenge, and I’ll meet it with joy.” They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us.

We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for twenty-five years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and, perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.

And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s take-off. I know it’s hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.

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.

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 our journeys continue.

I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA, or who worked on this mission and tell them: “Your dedication and professionalism have moved and impressed us for decades. And we know of your anguish. We share it.”

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 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.”

Thank you.

No, we will never forget them. 

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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