Yesterday morning, when the relatives of the seven astronauts who died in the Challenger shuttle explosion were interviewed on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" being taped at the Commerce Building, the pain was shared.

"What struck me the most was that the feeling was still there," Winfrey said. "After the rest of us have gone on with our lives, the feeling is still there for them."

But last night, the families and the 624 others who showed at a black-tie fund-raising dinner at the Pension Building were emphatically positive about the Challenger Center for Space Science Education.

The center, a national learning laboratory in memorial to the seven astronauts who died when their shuttle exploded in January of 1986, has been the one common project of the families since fall 1986. Last night's gala added another $350,000 to the more than $1 million raised so far for the $50 million center, planned for the PortAmerica site in Prince George's County. Supporters hope to raise more money from a record, "Challenger: The Mission Continues," previewed last night in performances by Grammy-winning singer Lee Greenwood and Tony-winning actor Michael Maguire.

"I think it was wonderful. We all got a good dose of encouragement from it," Steve McAuliffe said of the gala. "I have high hopes for {the center}." Asked how many memorials have been established in honor of his wife, Christa, McAuliffe said, "I couldn't begin to list them."

"I think Ron would be excited about it," Cheryl McNair, widow of astronaut Ronald McNair, said of the center as she positioned for a photograph with McAuliffe, June Scobee, Lorna Onizuka, Charles Resnick, Marcia Jarvis, Jane Smith and the evening's host, Walter Cronkite, the TV anchor who introduced millions of Americans to space on his nightly newscasts.

Vice President George Bush, a cochairman of the event, saluted Cronkite with his opening remarks. "CBS has not been the same since Walter Cronkite left, and all we can say is, 'That's the way it is,' " he said, then took a jab at Cronkite's replacement for walking off the CBS News set because the U.S. Open coverage delayed the start of the news. "After Dan Rather temporarily disappeared ... within minutes his pictures appeared on milk cartons."

The crowd howled.

Bush also saluted June Scobee, chairwoman of the center, saying, "She may be small, but she's tough."

Bush recounted visiting the families after the explosion and telling them to call if he could be of any help. Scobee did call, and Bush returned her call identifying himself as the vice president. After a pause, her son, Richard, then 21, asked, "Vice president of what?"

Among the guests, some of whom came from as far as the West Coast, were Voyager pilots Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager. Rutan, a dashing figure in his navy blue U.S. Air Force dress uniform, said, "We're supporters, just like everybody else is. The greatest thing is education."

After the guests, assembled among 60 tables -- some of which went for $25,000 a table -- finished dinner with chocolate flying saucers with spacemen inside, Cronkite worked the crowd.

"I appreciated the vice president's remark," he said. As for his reported remark that he would have fired Rather for walking off the set, he explained: "That would have been my first, visceral reaction, but the rest of what I said wasn't quoted. I would have thought better of that."

And as for his desire to go into space? "Sure," he said. "I'd like to go tomorrow if someone gave me the opportunity, but the only people who would give me the opportunity are the Russians."