Rhetorical analysis of Reagan The Challenger Speech

Posted: April 04, 2016

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Since the inauguration of the space race in the 1960s, The United States’ space program has held a special significance for most Americans. Among other things, the program served as a symbolic indicator and expression of American values and possibilities (Sizemore 77). By the mid-1980s, America’s innovative and cutting edge space shuttle program was a jewel in the crown of American progress, something to be witnessed and celebrated—something awe-inspiring. On January 28th of 1986, however, the space program’s illustrious status was shaken. On that day, seventy-three seconds after liftoff, the space shuttle Challenger exploded, completely obliterating the vehicle and instantly killing its seven-member crew.

As President of the United States, Ronald Reagan was tasked with responding effectively to the rhetorical situation generated by the Challenger disaster, one shaped by three primary exigencies. First, the national tragedy called for praising the dead and consoling the living. Next, in light of a then growing skepticism about funding the space program among some notable politicians (Brock 17)—a skepticism the disaster might cause to spread to citizens—Reagan needed to restore the American people’s faith in the program. Finally, as suggested above, the space program served as a symbolic indicator and expression of American competence, innovation, and progress. Consequently, paralleling the material destruction of the Challenger and her crew was the symbolic damage done to American Doxa. More specifically, because of the symbolic identification of America with its space program (Farrell 25), the space shuttle disaster shook most Americans’ deeply held common beliefs about their country, a tear was created in the fabric of the longstanding American narrative of our nation’s unquestionable greatness. This third exigency tasked Reagan with rhetorically repairing that tear.

As a comforter, national father, and an American, Reagan was very effective in meeting the emotional needs of five audiences including the USA, families of the fallen astronauts, school children, the Soviet Union and NASA. He uses ethos to communicate shock and grieve to the Americans while comforting the American people and reassuring them the importance of the program.

Reagan’s speech on Challenger is epideictic, which is speech intended to praise often used to mark a formal event.  The speech is aimed at “magnifying” the importance of ethos over logos.  It depicts a connection between characters and ethos. The speech starts off by expressing pathos in the feeling of pain and loss that the nation shared toward the disaster. The Challenger Seven acts of bravery, courage, and dedication were exemplified in their decision to accept to take part in the mission. Reagan acknowledges the heroism of the crew while mourning with their families. “But we feel the loss, we are 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 challenged and I will meet it with joy.” In this line, Reagan acknowledges the trauma and also celebrates the sacrifice of the crew members. 

In great pain, it is possible to forget the reality. Reagan had the noble and also an unfortunate responsibility to remind Americans that the astronauts were doing their work and while this does not diminish their sacrifice, it acknowledges that they knew the risks and were prepared to accept the risks.

According to Walton (63), it is easy to trust someone we believe is intelligent, well informed, is clear-headed and reasonable.  Reagan demonstrates practical wisdom by avoiding restating the grisly circumstances of the death of the astronauts because the nation had already watched the original event. He used a language that purposely avoided evocative imagery and sought to check such evocation. Reagan sees the tragedy as an opportunity for advancement and uses the logos and ethos of the Space Program to show how far we have come since the program was started and shows the commitment to continue.

According to Hauser (21), we can trust people who speak with integrity, who make virtuous decisions and those who appear to be truthful.  Admirable virtues such as modesty, eloquence, and sincerity are the core of Reagan’s speech.  The speech demonstrates a virtuous level of modesty.  By deciding to set aside his planned State of the Union address to attend to the critical issue, Reagan demonstrated statesmanship.  Reagan also shows proper modesty by including himself among those who have become complacent about the phenomenon of space travel. The uses the noun “I” to show his closeness to the event and addresses all those affected at a personal level.  The speech also demonstrates virtuous fair-mindedness in his eloquent use of the poem “High Flight” composed by the American pilot John Gillespie Magee Jr., who succumbed fighting the Nazis in WWII.   Epideictic oration blurs the difference between rhetoric and poetry.  As such, Magee’s words are the most remembered part of the speech that produced some of the greatest emotional moments. Reagan stated, “the astronauts slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God. The use of the words redefined the violent fireball of death that Americans had seen hours earlier. The use of the young soldier’s words made the speech memorable and eloquent and facilitated in offering public solace. The introduction of the speech also demonstrates Reagan’s eloquence. He stated, “We mourn seven heroes.” The introduction is eloquent and also tells the American were heroes. The choice of words allows every American, regardless of faith, to relate and feel the meaning that the deceased astronauts live on in the afterlife.

As a result of the visual experience of watching the death of seven astronauts on live TV, the suddenness and unexpected nature of the explosion, the nation was confronted with the problem of processing and responding to the deaths, ordinary people thrust into national prominence through the occupational involvement. The rhetoric exigence is in two fold. First, in assisting the nation mourn properly and to not allow the strategy stall the space program. Secondly, Reagan emphasizes the theme of exploration throughout the speech. The emphasis on the theme of exploration gives the audience the frame on which to mourn the deceased.  Additionally, viewing the strategy from the theme of inevitable sacrifice of exploration enables the citizens to remove the natural fear of a repeat accident. 

In his opening remarks, Reagan states “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 our country. This is truly a national loss.”  As such, Reagan addresses not only the families of the deceased astronauts but also the nation’s children, “every man and woman who work for NASA” and the entire nation. The use of the pronouns “I,” “us,” and “we” demonstrates that Reagan had invested in the statement personally.  He steps out of his presidential role and makes it clear that he was affected by the tragedy at a personal level. The naming of his wife established an elegiac tone.   He noted that the program will continue regardless of the loss as Americans are determined, strong-willed and the program was the symbol of American progress.

The speech is monumental because it not only reflects on the personal strategy for every American but also it demonstrates Americans resolve. As Americans, we do not give up during hard times; we push on and live to push the American dream.

Work cited

Hauser, Gerard A. Introduction to the rhetorical theory. 2nd ed. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland, 2002. Print

Walton  Janel. The ethos factor: memorable and forgettable presidential epideictic oration. 20101 University of Alaska, Anchorage. Print 

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