So now there are the faces to look at, these awful faces, stilled always in the first glimpse of the unimaginable: Here is the schoolteacher's mother, her hand to her mouth; and the schoolteacher's sister, her eyes squeezed shut mid-wail; and the empty-faced New Hampshire high school girl who has not even had time to take off her party hat. There was probably not a newspaper town in America that escaped yesterday the grainy black-and-white vision of men and women staring at death, and you could not turn away, as though gazing long enough at the faces of the suddenly bereaved could bring substance or spirit to this crashing national grief.
A full day after it happened, long after the wild billowing flames had engulfed the space shuttle again and again on television videotape, the sense of loss is still so ravaging and strange that men and women as far away as Paris were remembering the way they felt when John F. Kennedy was murdered. Public therapy support groups began forming in San Francisco; bank customers grieved in northern Minnesota; professors and students at the University of Virginia relived it in low voices in the hallways.
A large hand-lettered sign at a Cape Canaveral coffee shop read, "Deep Sorrow Grips the Entire World." Guidance counselors and therapists fanned out into the public schools of Concord, N.H. Radio talk shows in Boston fielded call after sk,1 sw,-1 ld,10 call from numbed men and women who groped for something to liken this to and returned, almost always, to the afternoon in 1963 when the president was shot.
"Everyone's talking about it," said David Powers, curator of the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. "You go to lunch and people are talking about it. You sit at a bar and people are talking about it. They're still showing it on television. It'll be with us for a long, long time."
It would have been, in any case, the kind of news that sears. Men and women a decade from now will remember where they were and how they first heard about the Challenger: the car radio, a long-distance telephone call, a sudden muffled cry from the woman at the next desk. Enough that it was filmed as it happened; enough that the explosion should claim not some weaponry-laden experiment but the benign, publicly unsullied space shuttle. Enough that you could sit transfixed before the television screen, imagining the upturned faces below, and watch the instant of death replayed every 15 minutes, with slow motion repeats to prolong the hypnotic swelling of the fireball.
Enough that the Challenger's doomed roster should read like a small parade of democratic American promise: the black physicist, the nisei aerospace engineer, the Ohio woman who played classical piano and had mastered electrical engineering. Those were the professionals. They were still heroic, in the untarnished if slightly diminished role of the new career people of this decade's space program.
But they were astronauts, and it was not the astronauts one remembered as the first news grabbed the gut Tuesday morning. It was Christa McAuliffe, the high school teacher, the curly-haired woman who was plucky and delighted and so clearly one of us.
That a teacher should perish five miles above the Earth -- whole classrooms of schoolchildren and her own family watching it happen -- that is what makes the horror of this thing settle so fiercely within men and women who until Tuesday morning had not even known Christa McAuliffe's name.
Her beaming face in that space-suited lineup, the hands wrapped proudly around the helmet before her, sent the swiftest and most visceral message to anyone who loves a child, or remembers the teachers of his own childhood, or joined even a little in the vicarious exhilaration of a new space traveler who had no years of arduous training or advanced scientific degrees. One knew she was brave and inventive and full of imagination -- this was, after all, a woman who had been selected from 11,000 eager candidates -- but it was her very ordinariness that infused such wonder into her much-publicized preparations for takeoff.
The television cameras loved her frank exuberance, her small blond daughter, the possibly feigned look of uneasiness on her husband's face as he coped with her absence by shoving a frozen dinner into the microwave. One of the television anchors, encapsulating on Tuesday the careers of the seven who died, referred to McAuliffe as "high school teacher and mother of two"; like much of the rest of the devastated audience, he too had apparently been so consumed by her Everywoman radiance that it was not until somewhat later that his own network noted that the men on board were all fathers of two and three.
"People fell in love with her, the way they loved President Kennedy," Powers said. "All of New England, we all felt we knew her here. She's been on talk shows. They had a parade for her in Concord, New Hampshire."
Powers, who had been an intimate friend and associate of John F. Kennedy since 1946, was riding in the automobile cortege when the president was shot and still remembers, with the terrible intensity that personal tragedy leaves behind, the numbness that overtook the days that followed. He never met Christa McAuliffe, but he is carrying with him now some sense of the same dull grieving, he said: "When I first heard it -- my secretary came to my desk and told me -- that was my first thought. I went, 'Oh my God -- again.' "
And that is likely to linger, psychologists have said, among men and women who awoke Wednesday morning and could not shake the sense of disbelief and loss. "Everybody's affected," said Washington psychiatrist Dr. Norman Tamarkin, who rescheduled several appointments Tuesday just to give himself time to cope with the news. "I was in shock myself. There's nobody who has come into the office who hasn't talked about it. I just spoke to a friend who works in town here, and she said the whole building is feeling down."
"I've heard colleagues say, 'It's time to knock it off -- get on with your life,' " said Dr. Calvin Frederick, a UCLA psychiatry professor and former chief of disaster assistance and emergency medical health with the National Institute of Mental Health. "I get so annoyed with that. It's so arrogant. Nobody has the right to tell you how long to suffer."
And the people whose grief was so publicly displayed yesterday, the men and women staring up at a thing so awful they could not entirely grasp what they were seeing, will probably have the rest of the country both as solace and leech. Condolences will arrive by the sackful; memorials will be crowded with strangers and cameramen; reporters will wish to know how families and former students are faring, as though breathing in the private grief could make more bearable the public sense of loss.
They will likely have to cope as well, Frederick said, with the delayed trauma that sometimes overwhelms the witness to horror. "We made a tremendous mistake in our handling of the Iranian hostages," he said. "We paraded them down Fifth Avenue instead of dealing with their emotions."