The boisterous crowd at Plum's Lounge on Cocoa Beach's main drag grew silent each time the horrifying pictures of the space shuttle explosion flashed on a large television screen on the wall Tuesday night.
"They've been playing it on TV since twenty of 12," a cocktail waitress said. "Everyone's been crying. It's just tragic."
Robert Garrett, 30, a General Dynamics welder working on a future shuttle project, nursed a drink as he contemplated the grisly spectacle and said he wondered what it portended for him.
"It means a lot to everyone in terms of jobs and the economy," he said.
Garrett, who is married and has three children, earns nearly $40,000 a year in a industry that has treated him well.
In the wake of the worst space disaster in history, which took the lives of seven crew members including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, Garrett and thousands of others employed in this community are grappling with conflicting emotions of grief and fear of a setback in the space program.
"It hurts deep, especially knowing McAuliffe's children and husband and mother and father were watching," he said.
For years, Cocoa Beach and surrounding communities have prospered and grown confident in the forefront of space-age technology as the shuttle program has been accelerated.
"There have been 56 space missions, and almost everyone feels it a major accident was inevitable," a local business leader said. "It was a terrible tragedy. Nobody wanted to face it."
In coffee shops, offices, schools and churches throughout the area today, residents are mourning the lost shuttle crew members and facing tough questions about the wisdom of pushing forward with manned space missions.
Thirteen more shuttle missions were planned this year, but some are likely to be scrapped pending the outcome of an exhaustive investigation of Tuesday's disastrous flight.
The Rev. Eamon Tobin, of the Church of Our Savior, held a mass for the seven dead tonight. "For a lot of our people it's a very anxious time, with everyone saying we've got to stop and investigate, which might take up to a year," he said.
"I'm sure for those people intimately involved, there's probably a sense of common guilt" about the accident, said Tobin, whose parish includes about 1,200 families, many with ties to the space industry.
"They're struggling with that . . . but the vast majority of the people feel the space program should go on. The general feeling is that the best memorial to these people is to continue the work," he added.
Jim Dubay, general manager of a firm responsible for base operations at Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral, said today that the explosion should not be used as an excuse to cut back the space program.
"We take setbacks and learn from it," said Dubay, who has lived with his family in Cocoa Beach for three years. "We're not going to let any mentality persuade us to crawl in a hole."
Earlier today, one of Dubay's sons sided with children in his elementary school class who felt that continuing manned missions is too risky.
"We haven't talked about it," Dubay said. "They're probably reacting to their emotions at the moment."
Cocoa Beach, a tiny tourist town near Cape Canaveral, is in the hub of Florida's sprawling space industry community in one of the nation's 10 fastest-growing areas.
Since the mid-1970s, it has been home to many of the corporate and National Aeronautics and Space Administration pioneers of the shuttle program.
Lockheed Space Operations Co. is the area's second largest employer, with 5,000 workers and an annual payroll of $150 million. The Harris Corp., a diversified high-technology company, ranks first with more than 12,000 employes.
The Cocoa Beach area recently has become the East Coast's answer to Silicon Valley, with large numbers of residents working for high-tech and aerospace companies. But it also has the allure of astronauts and visiting VIPs.
"When there's a launch, everything stops for five minutes," banker Joe Morgan said. "Customers rush outside to catch a glimpse. It's excitement. It's a way of life. It's a feeling of reaching out to a new frontier."
Any setbacks in the space industry send shock waves through Cocoa Beach and neighboring Titusville and Melbourne.
Many here recall the grim days of 1973 and 1974, when the conclusion of the Apollo space program devastated the local economy. Since then, however, the economy has become far more diversified, with major development in the service, trades and fishing industries.
Richard Scoles, 24, an accountant and part-time grocery clerk, stood on a stepladder at a food market outside Cocoa Beach to hang a sign that said: "Our prayers go out for the Challenger families."
"I've seen a lot of them go up, but this is the first one I've seen blow up before my eyes," Scoles said.
Despite the accident, Scoles said he feels that the program should continue. With mixed emotions, he recalled watching space shots with his father in the back yard, describing them like this:
"A chill runs up your spine. You get a feeling of elation, and you just want to cheer. It doesn't get old hat. Every flight is a new reason to celebrate."