1986 State of the Union Address (lost pre-Challenger disaster version of American presidential speech; existence unconfirmed; 1986)

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Photo of the House rostrum during the 1986 State of the Union Address. Pictured is President Ronald Reagan (front center), Vice President George H. W. Bush (back left), and Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill (back right)

Status: Existence Unconfirmed

The State of the Union Address is an annual speech given by the United States president to a joint session of the U.S. Congress near the beginning of the year, remarking on the relevant issues and events of the moment.[1] The 1986 SoTU was the fifth such address given by the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, on February 4th of that year.[2]

The speech was originally supposed to take place on January 28th, but was delayed after the American space shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight that same day, tragically killing all seven crew members aboard.[3] Facing a stunned and grieving nation, Reagan opted to focus that night's Presidential remarks exclusively on the disaster.[4]

Some reports before and after the disaster claim that Reagan had originally planned to interact with the space shuttle crew at some point during the State of the Union Address, but these claims have been refuted by the Reagan administration and a pre-Challenger disaster version of the speech has never publicly surfaced.


Challenger's launch had by this point been delayed multiple times, starting in July 1985.[5] In the days leading up to the planned Jan 28th launch, NASA's engineers had recommended it be delayed yet again, due to concerns over how the shuttle's solid rocket boosters (SRBs), especially the O-ring seals inside the boosters, would perform in subzero temperatures. [5] Despite this, acting Administrator of NASA William Graham, wary of a snowballing morale and PR disaster, decided to push forward. The O-rings did in fact fail, and the escaping rocket fuel subsequently ignited before the boosters could get clear of the shuttle.[6]

On the morning of the launch, Jane Mayer of the Wall Street Journal reported that President Reagan planned to pause that evening's State of the Union Address and direct the audience's attention to a screen showing "heroes".[7] A year later, in the book Challenger: A Major Malfunction, author Malcolm McConnell writes that a NASA employee told him it was common knowledge at the agency that the reference to 'heroes' meant the President was planning to call Challenger. In particular, he wanted to speak to Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire elementary-school teacher who was aboard the shuttle as a 'payload specialist' (space-exploration-speak for 'passenger') as part of the Teachers in Space Project.[8]

Extrapolating from all this, some believe that NASA head Graham had rushed the launch of Challenger primarily so that the dramatic 'American heroes' moment could happen while McAuliffe was actually in orbit. Graham had been working under Reagan since his 1980 presidential campaign, and as acting Administrator of NASA was noticeably eager to please him.[6] However the Reagan administration has strongly denied any claims that they put any pressure on NASA to launch the shuttle on the 28th.[9]


Whether or not there is any truth to this theory can not now be confirmed, as the key physical evidence - a verified copy of the pre-disaster SoTU address, indicating who the 'heroes' were intended to be - has never been released, and no other correspondence regarding the incident has surfaced.