On this day in 1986, President Ronald Reagan gave a short speech that he did not want to give, yet it was a speech that needed to be given. A shocked nation, and world, had just witnessed the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, an explosion that killed everyone aboard including Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher who was attempting to become the first teacher is space.
On that fateful and tragic day, Reagan was planning to given another speech entirely, the annual State of the Union Address. When the Challenger exploded at 11:39 EST, Reagan immediately cancelled the State of the Union Address, the first time in modern history this had been done. Reagan’s staff then went immediately to work on the difficult task of crafting the right words to describe the day’s tragic events.
The principal writer of the speech was Peggy Noonan. She knew that writing this speech would be a difficult task, not only because of the terrible circumstances that required it to be written, but also because of the many different segments of the audience that would watch it. Because of Christa McAuliffe’s participation in the launch, children across the country had witnessed the explosion. The speech had to balance sorrow with perseverance; it had to honor the dead but also make it clear that life would continue; it had to admit the failure of the mission, but also make it clear that exploration of space would continue. If all this was not enough, it also had to consider the disaster in light of geopolitics; after all, the Cold War was still being waged at the time. The U.S. had never lost astronauts in flight before, and the Soviets would be watching to see how the American president addressed this tragedy.
The final text of the speech that Peggy Noonan wrote deftly hit on each necessary element and adeptly addressed each of the segments of the varied audience. The text also included a historical analogy by noting that January 28th was the anniversary of the death of Sir Francis Drake, who died at sea in 1596. Like those who died aboard the Challenger, Drake died dedicated to the task of exploring new frontiers.
As Noonan crafted the speech, she remembered a sonnet that she had memorized in 7th grade. It was a poem called High Flight and was written by a 19 year-old, World War II aviator named John Magee. It is a poem that celebrates the majestic experience of flight, and what made it especially poignant is the fact that its young author was killed in a mid-air collision just months after he composed the poem. It’s Magee’s words that eloquently end the speech: “[The Challenger crew] slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”
Ronald Reagan’s national eulogy, given less than six hours after the explosion of the Challenger, is an excellent backdrop by which to examine two important principles from classical rhetoric: exigency and kairos.
Exigency is the Latin term for “an urgent need or demand.” In other words, the exigency of a speech or composition involves the catalyst that caused it to be written. Understanding exigency helps us explore the backstory and the occasion of a speech as well as the writer’s motivation for writing. To fully understand Reagan’s speech, for example, we must understand the historical context in which it was given and the preceding events that “demanded” it be given.
Kairos is the Greek term for “timing” or “timeliness.” The Greeks had two concepts for time: chronos and kairos. Chronos was used for “linear, measurable time”; it’s the root we find in the English word chronology. Kairos, in contrast, relates to the “opportune time” for something to be done, or the doing of something at the “exact, most advantageous time.” Understanding kairos helps us to better explore the timing of a speech. As we can see by Reagan’s address to the nation, for example, the speech’s kairos is what makes it so memorable. Reagan was able to say the right thing, with the right tone, at the right time.
Each speech, article, or other piece of writing you read has its own rhetorical situation, which includes exigency and kairos. As demonstrated by Reagan’s speech, by analyzing who the speaker is, why he is speaking, when he is speaking, and to whom he is speaking, we gain a much more complete understanding of not just what is said, but also how it is said.
Today’s Challenge: Audience Analysis
What were the different segments of the audience for Reagan’s Challenger Address, and how did he specifically address each one in his short speech? Read the entire text of Reagan’s speech. Then, write an analysis of how the different segments of his audience would have taken his words based on the exigency and the kairos of the speech. Look at the following segments of the audience separately:
The General American Public
The Family Members of the Astronauts
The Employees of NASA
The Soviet Union
Explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger
Address to the Nation, January 28, 1986
by President Ronald W. Reagan
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 25 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 takeoff. I know it is 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 390 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 an 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.” (2)
Quotation of the Day: By using kairos as a guiding principle for your own texts, you can bring interest and timeliness to your writing projects. So when you begin to write, think of the moment that your writing will enter into—the audience that will read it, the conversation that it joins, the history surrounding the topic, and the words you use to craft your argument. Awareness and use of this knowledge create beautiful writing that, like turning the key in your door at the end of a long day, seems perfectly timed, effortless, and just right. -Kate Pantelides, Megan McIntyre, and Jessica McKee (3)
1-Moyer, Justin Wm. Exactly the Right Words, Exactly the Right Way: Reagan’s Amazing Challenger Disaster Speech. Washington Post. 28 Jan 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/01/28/how-ronald-reagan-explained-the-challenger-disaster-to-the-world-its-all-part-of-taking-a-chance/.
2-NASA History Office. Address to the Nation. http://history.nasa.gov/reagan12886.html.
3-Pantelides, Kate, Megan McIntyre, and Jessica McKee. Kairos. Writing Commons. 16 Apr. 2012. http://writingcommons.org/open-text/information-literacy/rhetorical-analysis/rhetorical-appeals/595-kairos.