At the Air and Space Museum yesterday it was decided that this particular shuttle launch would be shown on the television monitor in Space Hall. The launches had become so routine that even in this palace to rocketry they had ceased to take much notice. But this one was different. The first teacher was going into space, and so the monitor was on and beside it, like a marquee, were posted the relevant names. Sometime around noon it became clear that the names of the crew were the names of the dead.

People came and stood before the monitor. Looming behind them were the immense rockets of the past, huge things that go clear to the ceiling. They had all those familiar, Walter Cronkite-era names and you could almost hear him say them -- "JU-piter." These were the Conestoga wagons of our generation, the Pony Express of the American Space Age -- names that fire the American imagination and convinced us that space was ours. Look at the flag that waves from the moon.

The monitor showed the tape of the catastrophic blastoff. A kid in a Superman cap looked into it, uncomprehending. A woman slowly brought her hand up to her face as if to ward off the coming blast and, at the moment, a man's mouth just dropped open. No one said anything -- not to relatives, not to strangers. It was as if a president had died and once again we were just so sad.

Up in a gallery, the voice of John F. Kennedy recited his summons to the moon. He spoke on a constantly repeating videotape. It was May 25, 1961, and he was appearing before a joint session of Congress. There -- there was Lyndon Johnson, the majority leader. And there was Sam Rayburn, the speaker of the House. The young president said we were going to send an American to the moon and back. Amazingly, there was no applause. Maybe no one believed him The moon! It once seemed a silly dream.

But we have been there and back. We have been to space like no other nation. We have made it the American frontier, and we have done it in a characteristic way. We centered it around man himself, the individual, and then we mythologized it with stories and movies and the speeches of politicians. We made the astronauts into senators and corporate executives and even took one who wasn't one, Chuck Yeager, and made him the biggest hero of them all. He had the Right Stuff.

Almost instantly yesterday, reporters and TV commentators were questioning the worth of the program and whether we always needed to send people into space. Other nations send machines. Still others do nothing. Wasn't this some characteristic American silliness, one that has backfired? NASA publicists had put Christa McAuliffe, perky Christa McAuliffe, into each of our families, and now, because of that, we will mourn her all the more.

But while the commentators were commenting and the reporters were questioning, the revolving doors to the museum kept turning. The people -- the people -- kept coming as they do every day. There is no more popular museum in the world, and even yesterday the revolving door seemed to churn them out. Most of them already knew the news. Some did not, but even those, once they were told, went on with their tour. They were drawn to this place because space is where America has placed the banner of manifest destiny. They moved quickly to the rockets, the satellites, hardly pausing at the original Wright Brothers plane, which hangs near the doorway. It is space they want. It is space they will continue to get.

At 12:59, Bob Stephens, a volunteer guide, started his walk across the main floor of the museum. Stephens is retired Air Force, a space buff like so many of the volunteers. Earlier, he had said to a colleague, "I don't feel like giving the tour," but now he was standing where the tour begins, waiting. One by one the people approached. A family from New York. A man in a denim jacket. Another family and another man until, finally, there were about 20 of them.

Stephens spoke up. "Well, good afternoon, ladies and gentleman," he said. "Now, I suppose that you all know of the tragedy. As far as we know there are no survivors." He paused. "This makes me feel very somber, but I'll do the best I can." He scanned the faces looking at him. "Any questions?" he asked. "No. Okay. Let's walk out and look at the very first machine-powered aircraft . . . " After the appropriate pause, the tour had resumed.

So will the space program.