The test pilot in me was not surprised when Challenger blew up. I have been expecting something like this for more than 20 years, but knowing it's going to happen doesn't make the moment any less painful. On the contrary, I feel I am part of a family that has lost seven children and will lose more.

The fact that Christa McAuliffe was a guest on board seems to make it even worse. Anyone who has lived with large rocket engines understands that their awesome power is produced by machinery churning away at very high temperatures, pressures and velocities. A thin and fragile barrier separates combustion from explosion.

Astronauts understand this very well, but I wonder if Christa or her family really grasped the seriousness of riding in that gigantic pile of machinery on Launch Pad 39, despite the realistic briefings NASA conducted. After all, we tend to pooh-pooh danger, and if you go into the VIP stands before a space launch there is a carefree, holiday atmosphere, like being at the company picnic. Ride one of the beasts and you get a different perspective.

But it has always been this way, death in the air, from the day in 1909 when Orville Wright crashed, killing his passenger, Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge. The nation gasped when Will Rogers and Wiley Post went down. The nation watched in horror as the Hindenburg exploded. The nation endured World War II despite the massive loss of bomber crews. Recently the Boeing 747 has wiped out hundreds at a time. And now seven more.

How will we handle it? One difference this time is the eye of the television camera. We watch the rocket explode, over and over again, in slow motion, backward and forward, in vivid color. Christa's parents watch their daughter's spacecraft being blown to bits. We watch them watching it. Not once but as often as we can stomach it. This "you are there" lens, coupled with the instant replay, magnifies that which needs no magnification.

Another difference is that millions of Americans feel bereaved, unlike most accidents, where only family and friends of the victims are involved. NASA, which has always included us in its triumphs, will now see the consequences of that policy when things turn sour. People feel a deep sense of personal involvement and concern. I feel not only sadness, but a twinge of guilt as well, as though if I had only said or done something different this awful thing might not have happened. And I haven't worked for NASA for 16 years. I think many technicians and politicians will want to vent their feelings of grief and perhaps remorse. By way of expiation, we as a nation will mull over what we should have done that we didn't, and what we should do in the future.

In this process of emotional democracy, we must beware of those with an ax to grind. Within three hors of the accident, I listened to a woman who runs an organization opposed to President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative trying as hard as she could to link it somehow to Challenger's violent end. She was followed by a scientist who has always been against manned exploration of space, and who used the occasion to put in a plug for robots. Next the networks discovered the ejection seat and pondered Challenger's lack of them, despite the fact that no ejection seat could have escaped that instantaneous fire ball.

We are going to hear it all, and that is fine and good, but let's try to put this tragedy in some sensible context. No death is ordinary, and as a society we revere human life to the extent that we take extraordinary measures to save the lives of even the most heinous criminals.

In keeping with this ethic, NASA's philosophy was established in the original Mercury flights and continues to this day: safety above all else. But the only way to be 100 percent sure of avoiding air accidents is to stay on the ground. Are seven space victims any more dead than the 45,000 who perish annually on the highways?

What perspective would our pioneering ancestors bring to this business of space flight, this new form of exploration? Would they load the space wagons with women and children? Would they expect losses? Whole families? Would they bury the dead and press on? I don't know, but I think I do know what my friend, astronaut Judy Resnik, would say: fix the problem, and then let's get on with it.