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NASA launched a space shuttle called the Challenger for an outer space mission on January 28, 1986. Unfortunately, the space shuttle exploded slightly after the first minute of launch, killing all seven astronauts on board (Ditkof & Jimenez, 2021). On the same day, President Ronald Reagan had a state of the Union report he was to deliver but addressed the nation about the Challenger space shuttle disaster instead. Delivered at 5:00 p.m. from the Oval Office and broadcasted live on national television and radio, the Challenger speech was impactful and effective (Logsdon & Logsdon, 2019). President Reagan’s rhetorical mastery is evident from his appeal to pathos through emotional language, appeal to ethos through establishing trust, and appeal to logos through his use of logical reasoning and statistics. He applies these appeals in respective proportions, with the appeal to pathos being the strongest, followed by an optimal appeal to ethos and a minimal appeal to logos.
The purpose of President Reagan’s speech was to acknowledge the occurrence of the disaster, mourn and remember the death of the astronauts, and comfort the people of America. He makes this purpose clear when he says, “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” (Reagan, 1986). He acknowledges the tragic event and says it is a day of mourning and remembering. The audience of the speech is the American public. However, President Reagan goes deeper to address several audiences within the American public. He mentions the children who were watching the launch live, the families of the seven astronauts, and the nation at large. The context of the speech was the space shuttle’s explosion a few seconds after launch. The nation was shocked and dismayed after witnessing the astronauts’ demise on a live broadcast. President Reagan applies his rhetorical capabilities to the situation to produce a compelling speech.
President Reagan strongly appeals to pathos which is an Aristotelian appeal to emotions. First, he applies a mournful tone throughout the speech. Since the occasion was sad, applying this tone was appropriate for the speech as it reflects the sorrow of losing lives. When the president says it is a day of mourning, it evokes sad and mournful emotions in the audience. Further, he plainly mentions that people are mourning when he says, “We mourn seven heroes” and that “we mourn their loss as a nation together” (Reagan, 1986). These phrases emphasize the sad and mournful emotions he aims to evoke among his audience.
The president further appeals to pathos by using emotionally charged language to show the depth of hurt and pain that the nation is experiencing. For instance, he says, “Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger” (Reagan, 1986). In this statement, he shows that he and his wife are in agonizing pain following the tragedy. First, the president sympathetically calls out the families of the deceased astronauts, acknowledging that “we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy” (Reagan, 1986). Then, he adds emotional phrases like “we feel the loss” and “we’re thinking about you very much” (Reagan, 1986). This emotional language charges the moment with a mournful aura. The heavy appeal to pathos is appropriate for the speech, making it effective.
President Reagan appeals to ethos by establishing trust. Ethos is an appeal to the credibility and trustworthiness of an author or, in this case, orator. Stucki and Sager (2018) say that one can be more effective in a speech when one establishes trust with their audience. President Reagan establishes trust through his extrinsic ethos and the creation of common grounds. He earns an extrinsic ethos that comes with being the president of America; therefore, he gets the people’s attention. Besides extrinsic ethos, President Reagan establishes trust by creating a common ground when comforting his audience. For instance, he frequently uses the word “we” to say that all Americans, including himself, are in pain and are mourning the astronauts. For instance, the president says, “We mourn their loss as a nation” and “…we know of your anguish. We share it” (Reagan, 1986). He also creates a common ground when he displays himself as an ordinary American family man by saying, “Nancy and I are pained to the core…” (Reagan, 1986). These common grounds build his trustworthiness by making himself relatable to his audience.
Logos is an appeal to logic and rationality, which evokes the “that makes sense” effect on the audience. In his speech, President Reagan appeals to logos by using logical reasoning and statistical support for his argument. He applies logical reasoning when he says that “painful things like this happen” and that “it is all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons.” He says this while addressing the school children watching the launch live to make them see that downfalls are part of great adventures. The president shows the children that it is logical for some hurtful things to happen in the journey of great adventures. He also uses statistics to support his argument that the country has grown into wonder, and “for twenty-five years, the United States space program has been doing just that” (Reagan, 1986). Therefore people should take pride in America’s progress despite the demise that just happened. The sparing use of logos is appropriate for this comforting speech.
As discussed above, President Reagan’s Challenger speech displays his rhetorical mastery. He uses an effective rhetorical strategy that appeals to pathos, ethos, and logos in respective proportions. The strong appeal to pathos through a mournful tone and emotionally charged language fits the emotional context of the sad event. Also, he establishes trustworthiness through his extrinsic ethos and creates a common ground as a strategy to appeal to ethos. President Reagan appealed to logos using logical reasoning and statistical support to ensure the speech had a logical feel. This rhetorical strategy is crucial to the president’s success in comforting Americans after the tragic event.
- Ditkof, M., & Jimenez, C. (2021). Space Shuttle Challenger January 28, 1986 Tragedy 36 Years Later A Retrospective on Causation and Moral Injuries [Unpublished master’s thesis]. University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
- Logsdon, J. M., & Logsdon, J. M. (2019). Challenger. Ronald Reagan and the Space Frontier, 271-287.
- Reagan, R. (1986). Address to the Nation on the Explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. The Public Papers of President Ronald W. Reagan. https://www.docsteach.org/documents/document/reagan-challenger?tmpl=component&print=1
- Stucki, I., & Sager, F. (2018). Aristotelian framing: Logos, ethos, pathos, and the use of evidence in policy frames. Policy Sciences, 51, 373-385