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Another Space Shuttle Tragedy for America

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Good morning. It’s February 1. On this day in 2003, Americans watched the unfolding news reports with a foreboding sense of déjà vu as space shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon re-entering Earth's atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts on board.

It had been 17 years since NASA lost a crew, when the Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff. President Reagan postponed his 1986 State of the Union Address that night to speak to the nation about the “Challenger Seven,” which counted among their number a New Hampshire schoolteacher and mother of two named Christa McAuliffe.

Consoling their countrymen in times of trial didn’t start a decade ago, as Abraham Lincoln demonstrated at Gettysburg and Franklin Roosevelt showed on D-Day. But the arrival of mass communications did alter Americans’ expectations of what a president should say and do when tragedy strikes.

On the evening of January 27, 1967, Lyndon Johnson was basking in the signing of a treaty barring nuclear weapons from outer space when he was handed a note informing him that a fire had broken out in the capsule of Apollo 1 while it was on the runway at Cape Canaveral, and that all three astronauts on board, Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger Chaffee, had been killed.

“The shock,” LBJ would later recall, “hit me like a physical blow.”

Yet, Americans had not yet come to expect their presidents to routinely formulate words of condolence to soften such blows. The only statement from the White House was a 24-word press release. Lyndon Johnson did not speak to the nation, and although he attended the funeral Arlington National Cemetery -- and sat beside Gus Grissom's and Roger Chaffee's widows -- he was not asked to speak.

Nineteen years later, a president whose earliest training for politics was in front of a camera, knew that he would be expected to address the nation when the Challenger was lost. House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who visited the Oval Office that day and was frustrated by what he considered Reagan's cavalier attitude toward the unemployed, later observed that he had seen the worst of Reagan -- and the best -- in the same day.

“It was a trying day for all Americans,” O’Neill wrote in his autobiography, “and Ronald Reagan spoke to our highest ideals."

Bill Clinton similarly rose to the occasion after the Oklahoma City tragedy; Barack Obama has been called upon too many times to serve the consoler-in-chief function after mass shootings.

“A president is the only national leader, the only singular, transcendent leader we have,” Jeff Shesol, a speechwriter during Bill Clinton’s presidency, once told me. “There's no Church of England here, and at moments like these he’s not the leader of a political party, not the leader of an ideological movement. He’s the president of all the people. And we want him to speak to our collective sense of loss.”

By the time of the space shuttle Columbia disaster, George W. Bush had already rallied the nation in the aftermath of 9/11. Now, on February 1, 2003, it was time to do so again.

When Bush had spoken at National Cathedral the Friday after 9/11, some family members of those missing at the Pentagon or the World Trade Center were still carrying around photographs of their loved ones, in hopes they were still alive -- that they would still find their way home.

Helping the president draft his remarks, White House counselor Karen Hughes and chief speechwriter Michael Gerson thought about those families as they searched for words of solace. They were looking for an expression that would evoke the hope that the lost astronauts, although never coming home to their loved ones, were already in a better place.

They found the sentiment they were looking for in Old Testament, in a passage from the Book of Isaiah, in which the prophet assures the faithful that the Lord knows all the stars in the heavens and calls them by name.

“The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today,” Bush said 10 years ago today. “The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth, yet we can pray that all are safely home."

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