Asmall child rushed out of his house in a tiny South Carolina tobacco town to gaze in amazement at the sky. The date was Oct. 4, 1957, and the child had just learned of the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik, the first satellite to enter the great beyond of space.

The child was 7-year-old Ronald E. McNair, and he was mesmerized by the notion of such a thing staying up in the sky. His father, a car repairman, recalled that the child posted himself outside their ramshackle house for hours, watching in case the flying machine fell, so that he could get out of its way.

A few hundred miles away, a youth in the fishing village of Beaufort, N.C., was becoming fixated on the wonder of flight. He saw small private planes rise from the runway of the local airport, churning their way over the football field where his school team practiced. With each flight, young Michael J. Smith would freeze, staring upward "until he couldn't see it anymore," his coach recalled.

Clear across the United States in tiny Auburn, Wash., a young man named Francis R. (Dick) Scobee was heading to the Air Force to become a pilot, pursuing an ambition born from growing up next to the huge airfield where the Boeing Co. tested the early American jetliners. Their engines revved so thunderously that the noise competed with the cheers of crowds at Scobee's high school football games.

Serendipity and a remarkable period of American history would bring these three men and four other persons -- Judith A. Resnik, Ellison S. Onizuka, Gregory B. Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe -- together in a brief, shared romance with the heavens. Then a technological failure would freeze them forever in time -- 11:39 a.m., Tuesday, Jan. 28, 1986 -- 74 seconds into a mission to that timeless seducer, Outer Space.

The seven astronauts who died when the space shuttle Challenger exploded grew up with the space race. In many ways, its story and theirs are one.

They were youngsters in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, prompting the United States to embark on a conquest of space in a Cold War panic, to "make sure that space is not used to endanger our security," in the words of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Four years later, most of them thrilled to the idealistic vigor of President John F. Kennedy when he vowed to add the moon to his New Frontier.

College years coincided, for most of them, with the Mercury and Gemini missions and with the 1967 fire that killed three astronauts as their sealed capsule burned on the launch pad. All were in or near their 20s when, two years later, astronaut Neil Armstrong took his "one small step" onto the moon.

The Challenger Seven also mirrored the space program's multiple directions.

Scobee and Smith were fighter pilots, drawn to space in the spirit of the early, fighter-jock astronauts. McNair, Resnik and Onizuka were scientists, recruited when the government wanted more technological brainpower on its space missions. But their recruitment represented something else, too: the push by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to diversify its all-male, all-white astronaut corps. In Onizuka, McNair and Resnik, they brought in a Japanese American, a black man and a white woman.

In the 1980s, the opening of the program to nonastronauts brought in Jarvis, a communications engineer for a defense contractor, and McAuliffe, a teacher and self-described first "ordinary person" in space.

Laced through the story of their lives are key themes of the American romance with space, some less romantic than the notion of a "next frontier" implies. Portrayed as a great national adventure, the space program also has been a drive for world prestige, for military superiority, for scientific knowledge. Many of its goals could have been accomplished by unmanned spacecraft. But as President Kennedy's space advisers wrote in recommending a manned flight to the moon:

"It is man, not merely machines in space, that captures the imagination of the world." The 1950s

The Sputnik satellite that so fascinated McNair -- that 180-pound craft with a beep heard round the world -- unleashed powerful social and political changes in the United States, but these changes did not immediately touch the children who would become the men and women of space shuttle Challenger. Then they were still sequestered in sheltered worlds, most in towns of fewer than 5,000 people.

When Sputnik orbited the Earth, McNair was in Lake City, S.C., where a road called North-South Boulevard divided the town, black from white. McNair walked by white schools to get to his black schoolhouse and was barred from eating at white lunch counters.

In an affluent section of Akron, Ohio, 8-year-old Judy Resnik ("Little Judy," or simply "Little" to her father), was growing to love classical piano and becoming interested in science. Christa McAuliffe was 9-year-old Christa Corrigan of Framingham, Mass., enjoying Bible study groups, Girl Scouts and piano lessons.

Thousands of miles away in Hawaii, 11-year-old Ellison Onizuka was attending an 80-student elementary school in the tiny community of Kealakekua on the island of Kona, where the landscape was dotted with coffee and macadamia nut trees.

Back east along the North Carolina coast, 12-year-old Mike Smith was living on a 13-acre chicken farm and counting the days until he could take flying lessons. Up in Mohawk (pop. 3,000), N.Y., Greg Jarvis, at 13, was starting a romance with chemistry and physics.

In Auburn, Wash., Scobee, the oldest at 18, had just graduated from high school, and was heading for Kelly Air Force Base in Texas. A football end and basketball player, he was "a solid, but not outstanding student" who couldn't afford to go to college and enlisted in the military instead, a friend recalled.

None of them had any thought at the time of going into space. And no wonder. The notion of human beings or their machines soaring into the heavens was, at the time, the stuff of Walt Disney cartoons and Buck Rogers comic strips for all but a few rocketry experts.

All that changed after Sputnik went up, triggering a nationwide identity crisis. A country that had come to judge its virtue by technological achievements suddenly felt it had been beaten by the Soviets.

In response, President Eisenhower and Congress in 1958 created a new civilian agency, emphatically free of military control. This was the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and it had these goals: taking an adventure-hungry nation "where no one has gone before," guarding national security in case the heavens became a battleground, enhancing U.S. prestige in the world, and advancing the frontiers of science.

At the same time, the government began pumping resources into education, particularly science and mathematics, hoping to nurture technological wizards across the country, in communities as varied as Lake City, Mohawk, Akron and Kona.

To explain the imponderable new venture to Americans, Eisenhower had his science advisers write a layman's introduction to space exploration that said: "This is not science fiction. This is a sober, realistic presentation prepared by leading scientists." He reassured the nation: "Every person has the opportunity to share through understanding in the adventures which lie ahead." The 1960s

The United States had no sooner installed its youngest president to "get the country moving again," than the Soviets stunned the world with another coup: the first manned spaceship went up and returned safely. The same week, Kennedy's botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba further humiliated the country.

Kennedy saw the space program as a battleground where the country could not afford to lose. "Do we have a way of beating the Soviets by putting a laboratory in space, or by a trip around the moon or by a rocket to land on the moon, or by a rocket to go to the moon and back with a man?" he wrote to his advisers on April 20, 1961. "Is there any other space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win?"

"He became convinced that space was the symbol of the 20th century," Kennedy's science adviser Jerome Wiesner was quoted as saying by space historian John Logsdon. "It was a decision he made cold-bloodedly. He thought it was right for the country."

Moreover, the flights would be manned and the explorers the best of the breed: heroes to excite a disheartened nation, men with nerves of steel, what writer Tom Wolfe would later call "the right stuff."

Kennedy's calculation worked on seven young people in particular.

"John Kennedy inspired me with his words about placing a man on the moon," McAuliffe said later of the speech she heard in Framingham at age 12.

"I remember the excitement in my home when the first satellites were launched," she wrote in her application to become an astronaut. "My parents were amazed and I was caught up with their wonder. In school, my classes would gather around the TV and try to follow the rocket as it seemed to jump all over the screen. I remember when Alan Shepard made his historic [1961] flight -- not even an orbit -- and I was thrilled."

In Hawaii, 16-year-old Onizuka became "hooked" on space in 1962, according to friends, when astronaut Walter M. Schirra Jr.'s Mercury spacecraft splashed down near Hawaii after six orbits of earth.

But in Akron, Resnik, age 12 in 1961, watched televised space shots without special interest, recalled her father, Marvin Resnik. McNair, at 11, didn't see many flights because his school had too few televisions for everyone to watch.

Whatever their interest in the early space shots, all seven had by the 1960s developed the personality traits of the nation's astronaut-heroes: They were superachievers who seemingly couldn't go far enough, and masters of self-discipline.

Some had to fight obstacles to get there. McNair, at 135 pounds, was the smallest player on the George Washington Carver High School football team, but trained so tirelessly that by his senior year, he was captain. "To him, a failure was not a defeat, it was not a stop sign," said his brother Carl. ". . . It was an obstacle to be overcome."

Perhaps reflecting the nation's post-Sputnik emphasis on science, most of them became math and science whizzes. Onizuka and Scobee decided to study aerospace engineering. Jarvis, who came to love chemistry and physics at Mohawk High, also was drawn toward engineering. McNair excelled in math and science in Lake City, graduating in 1967 as valedictorian.

Resnik was so proficient in advanced science and mathematics that Firestone High School teacher Donald Nutter recalled grading students' exams against hers. If she had an answer that appeared to be wrong, Nutter would check his own calculations to see if he, the teacher, were in error. Resnik headed after high school to what then was Carnegie Tech, in Pittsburgh, one of only three women in electrical engineering.

Resnik, who wore her black hair long like late-1960s' actress Ali McGraw, was runner-up as Carnegie Tech homecoming queen and an accomplished classical pianist. Active in numerous clubs throughout high school, she resigned from all of them to devote full-time to studying her senior year. In college, she studied so zealously that a friend referred to her boyfriend, Michael Oldak, as "Judy's only extravagance." Resnik and Oldak were married in 1970, but separated in 1975 and divorced three years later.

Mike Smith realized his dream of flight, earning his solo pilot's license on the day he turned 16. Two years later, he succeeded in getting admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy, though some thought it over his head. Beside his picture in the Beaufort High yearbook were the words: " 'Tis not in mortals to command success; but he'll do more, he'll earn it."

As they traveled unwaveringly down roads of science and technology, the country and world around them seemed to be coming apart: President Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated; racial unrest exploded in cities across the country; student uprisings disrupted campuses; the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia; the U.S. government was failing to conquer poverty or to conquer communists in Vietnam.

All but one of the seven avoided being caught up in the ferment. Unfazed by antiwar sentiments, pilots Scobee and Smith flew combat missions in Vietnam (Scobee in 1966, Smith not until 1971). Jarvis enlisted in the Air Force in 1969 and was assigned to the space division.

The exception was Christa Corrigan, who married Steven McAuliffe while she was a student at Framingham State College. She took part in antiwar demonstrations, and wore a black armband at graduation in 1970 to protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

She described herself to The Boston Globe as a Kennedy liberal, pro-union, a feminist and social activist: "My sympathies have always been for working-class people. I grew up in that era -- we are real big Kennedy supporters -- and I think it's important to be involved."

Despite her disaffection, her enthusiasm for the space program only grew, as if she had found an oasis of purity in what seemed to her a tarnished government. She traced it in part to her interest in a course in the 1960s, taught by Framingham's Carolla Haglund, called, "The American Frontier."

In the course, Haglund said, she likened the space race to the westward movement of pioneers in the 18th and 19th centuries, and McAuliffe was captivated. "You knew from Christa's writings and contributions that she was into it," Haglund said.

So was the rest of the country and the world. After the lunar landings, American astronauts traveled round the world, presenting tiny specks of moon dust under magnifying glasses to kings, queens, presidents and prime ministers. They were wined and dined by universities, presidents and Hollywood actors; offered money and insurance policies; feted at Pro Bowl games and watermelon parades.

"We make heroes quickly in this country. We make them and forget them," observed Julian Sheer, head of NASA's public relations during the Apollo lunar landing program. "And these heroes were a renewable resource because every accomplishment was more exciting and more difficult that the one before. And in the back of our minds, it was something our biggest adversary wasn't doing, something that told our friends as well as our enemies: This is indeed an exceptional country."

Like McAuliffe, much of the country held the space race above politics. An illustration came on Christmas Eve in 1968, perhaps the most discordant year of the decade, when astronauts Frank Borman, James A. Lovell Jr. and William A. Anders read the opening passages of the Bible from space: "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the Earth . . . . "

The spectacle so stirred the country that Time magazine scrapped plans to name "The Dissenter" -- protesters against the war in Vietnam -- as its Man of the Year. Instead, Time named the three astronauts.

The next year, Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and Armstrong and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. made their historic walk, planting this plaque: "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind."

With such remarkable feats to crown the decade, perhaps it is no wonder that friends and relatives of all seven Challenger astronauts said the darkest hour of the moon race -- the Apollo 1 fire that claimed the lives of astronauts Virgil I. (Gus) Grissom, Edward H. White and Roger B. Chaffee -- had little effect on their views of space.

That is the way the old test pilot, Grissom, would have wanted it.

"If we die," he once observed, "we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business . . . . The conquest of space is worth the risk of life." The 1970s

By now, the trip to the moon was almost commonplace. Astronauts had gone there and back six times, without so much as a scratch. Space was said to have become part spectator sport, part frontier. Television cameras went with every space shot, sending back footage of astronauts floating weightless in the atmosphere, humans walking on powdery, craggy moon surfaces and beaming stunning views of Earth and of faraway celestial bodies.

The Soviets were comfortably behind the United States; the old threat that set off the space race no longer rallied support for costly new missions.

Against this backdrop, President Richard M. Nixon announced a new era in space -- the shuttle program -- a modest venture compared to the grand ones preceding it. The shuttle was to be a sort of truck, taking satellites beyond the atmosphere and releasing them into earth orbit, carrying scientists into the heavens to conduct research. NASA had hoped for a manned space station, but this at least was a small, first step.

At this point, the Challenger Seven were in their 20s and 30s, still widely scattered but all moving purposely ahead. The early 1970s became a time for them to advance their careers on earth -- a time when space held less luster than it had in a decade, and yet, their paths turned inexorably toward it.

Smith, nearing 30, and Scobee, about 35, entered test pilot school, going on a dizzying succession of daredevil flights. Onizuka, who got his aeronautical engineering masters degree in 1969, began a new career as an Air Force test pilot, testing aircraft bound for Vietnam.

The other scientists earned masters and doctorate degrees. Resnik got her electrical engineering doctorate at the University of Maryland. McNair got a physics doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he already had studied for a year in an undergraduate exchange program for minorities. Jarvis earned his masters in electrical engineering from Boston's Northeastern University and went to work at Hughes Aircraft Co. in space communications. One of his jobs was to supervise satellite manufacture.

"He was designing satellites and I think he just began to feel, 'Boy this would be great to get up there,' " recalled James Straub, stepfather of Jarvis' wife Marcia.

McAuliffe began her career as a teacher in 1970 in Prince George's County, while her husband attended Georgetown University Law School. She also earned a masters in education at Bowie State College, worked part-time as a Holiday Inn waitress to pay bills, and resisted urgings from friends who insisted her mind would be better employed in law. She told them she loved the classroom.

In 1978, she and her husband moved to New Hampshire, where she resumed teaching. A union activist, she soon became president of her local teachers' association and was an outspoken -- and ultimately successful -- advocate of higher wages.

Resnik, meanwhile, went through a personal upheaval that friends believe led her to reach for space. An adviser recalled that before her marriage broke up in 1975, he talked to the intense, dark-eyed student about her long hours in the lab, and "she indicated she felt constrained by other commitments in her life. She felt she didn't have the freedom as a woman that she really wanted."

When Resnik and her husband separated, she moved to an apartment in Chevy Chase and threw herself into her doctoral research on the effects of minute electrical currents on the dark pigments of the retina. Her co-workers called her "sparkling," "vital," and "beautiful," a standout in a group of people who already were recognized as standouts in the sciences.

At the same time, a fellow student and now chief of the lab, Jeffrey Barker, remembered Resnik expressing some self-doubts, once pulling him aside to ask: "Where do you get your ideas [for research] from?"

"I told her that if she had to think about where ideas come from, she ought not to go into that kind of science," Barker said. She seemed "extremely talented at carrying out complex tasks," exactly the assignment of astronaut scientists, he observed. But he never pegged her as a risk-taker then.

Resnik spent long hours on her research, but on summer weekends she escaped to a Bethany Beach vacation house with friends, nurturing her tan as if working on an experiment. At night, they feasted on crabs and beer.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, President Jimmy Carter suddenly escalated the funding for the long-neglected shuttle program. The impetus: a need for accurately placed satellites to monitor Soviet compliance with the strategic arms control treaties.

For the first time in a decade, NASA opened applications for a new astronaut class, this one to include scientists, or "mission specialists," to conduct experiments in space. Embracing affirmative action, NASA also actively hunted for women and minorities. The search reached Resnik during a sunbathing session in the summer of 1977, when she spied one of NASA's ads in an engineering magazine.

"I remember we drove up to her place in Chevy Chase one weekend and I saw she had an application for NASA on her desk," her sister-in-law, Kathleen Collins Resnik, said. "She said, 'I'm going to fill this out for the hell of it. I'm going to see what happens.' "

One of Resnik's University of Maryland advisers said he doubted that she would have applied to go into space had she been married. "She felt constrained before. I think that was the key to her getting into the program," he said.

"She didn't think she'd make it, but it just seemed like if there was going to be a female astronaut, Judy should've been it," one of her beach friends recalled. "She was brilliant, she was personable, she was gorgeous, she was a real go-getter, she had a lot of drive, she just knew she wanted to do it."

Her father recalled that she telephoned to tell him of her application: "Daddy, I'm going to try to be an astronaut."

"Good, because you're going to get it," came his answer.

At the same time, McNair spotted a recruiting poster at Hughes, and Onizuka saw one at Edwards Air Force Base. Both decided to apply. So did pilot Scobee.

"His fascination was not with space, but a fascination with the world, in things that go on in the world . . . finding out why things happen as they do," McNair's brother Eric said.

In all, 8,078 military and civilian experts vied for 35 slots. On Jan. 16, 1978, the calls went out.

Onizuka was reaching for his morning cup of coffee when the telephone rang.

"Congratulations," said the caller from NASA. "You've been selected."

Similar calls went to Resnik, McNair and Scobee. Two years later, Smith got one, too.

On and off from then on, Resnik would fly from Houston to Washington to log required hours in modified flight training. She would zoom onto the runway, take a taxi to meet her beach friends, then rush back to the airport for a return flight to her new world.

"She was so imbued with the philosophy that space was a coming frontier," Marvin Resnik said of his daughter. "She was the hardest working astronaut at Johnson Space Center and they knew it because they always asked her to do more . . . . If I wanted to get her, I'd call her at Johnson Space Center." The 1980s

If the romance with space waned in the 1970s, the 1980s was the decade when the love affair was supposed to ripen into a mature marriage.

Twenty-four times in five years, the shuttle rocketed into space and landed safely, with scientist-astronauts aboard conducting research that shed light on medicines, on satellite monitoring, on how to strengthen materials and more.

In the meantime, President Reagan opened the shuttle to scientists from corporations, to conduct research for commercial ventures.

If the generation that grew up during the race to the moon had become blase about space, the interest of American children seemed insatiable.

Former astronaut Harrison Schmitt said he has spoken often to groups of teen-agers, and has found, after asking for a show of hands, that at least 75 percent want to travel one day to the moon, and almost all have their eyes on Mars.

"I would ask, 'Why Mars and not the moon?' And I'd find it has to do with the fact that somebody's already been to the moon," Schmitt said. "I was standing in front of them talking about having already been there, so the moon lost some of its fascination."

By now, the shuttle seemed so dependable that NASA in 1982 took up the long-dormant question of whether to bring aboard "private citizens," ordinary people with no professional role in space exploration.

An advisory panel gave a cautious go-ahead, as long as those selected would spread understanding of space and not go along for a "joy ride." It was decided that these travelers should be "communicators" -- teachers, artists, poets, journalists. And the first, the panel said, should be a teacher. (In fact, a senator and a congressman got there first.)

Reagan so liked the idea that in August 1984 he turned the panel's recommendation into a campaign promise: "To choose as the first citizen passenger in the history of our space program one of America's finest: a teacher."

The search ended last July 24 with Christa McAuliffe, chosen from 11,416 applicants and 10 finalists. When her name was announced at a White House ceremony, the 36-year-old woman who had spent more than half her life captivated by space was so choked with emotion that she could scarcely get out the words to her nine co-finalists:

"When that shuttle goes, there might be one body, but there's going to be 10 souls I'm taking with me."

The vibrant McAuliffe, with her wit and enthusiasm for learning, became an instant celebrity, hitting the public relations jackpot in the tradition of the astronauts of her childhood. She became "everybody's favorite teacher," dubbing her adventure "the ultimate field trip" and vowing to teach classes from space via television.

Other astronauts also embraced their role as ambassadors, selling both the space program and their achievement ethic.

After his first shuttle mission in 1984, McNair sent a hand-written letter to a fifth grade class at his old elementary school. The salutation on plain white stationery carefully included each child's first name. (McNair's letter was in answer to one the students had sent him):

"Yes, I did go to the very school you are now attending -- from second through fifth grades. Yes it is true, astronauts are usually from New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Boston. But let the fact that there is one from LAKE CITY, S.C. serve as a lesson to you that it doesn't matter where you come from, who your relatives are, how much money you have, or who you are: whether or not you reach your goals in life depends entirely on how well you prepare for them and how badly you want them.

"Your friend, Ronald E. McNair, NASA Astronaut 'Homeboy' "

Resnik, as the second woman to go into space (Sally Ride was first), was in demand after her September 1984 flight, and she did her share of stump speaking. But Resnik, whom friends called scrupulously private, confided to some that it made her feel "like a potted plant." She told her father: "I am an astronaut. Not a woman astronaut. Not a Jewish astronaut. An astronaut."

There was no public talk of fear among the seven Challenger voyagers, just expressions of faith in the technology despite an awareness of risk. It had worked 24 times; why not a 25th?

"I feel, probably, safer doing something like that than driving around New York streets," McAuliffe said when asked if she had any fears.

Ron McNair's father, Carl, remembers expressing concern to his son about his safety in the shuttle, and Ron's response:

"I understand that Pop, but that is what I want to do."

"Well, then do it," the father said to the son. "End of discussion."

Jarvis and his wife Marcia, described as best friends who biked 20 to 50 miles a weekend, were unambivalent in their joy after his selection from among more than 600 other Hughes engineers to ride the shuttle.

"She wasn't just running up and down the street," Jarvis told The Torrance (Calif.) Daily Breeze of his wife's reaction. "She was floating. She was yelling, 'He got it. He got it.' "

Much of the country apparently felt the same, for there was no advance charge of recklessness in sending a teacher, or anyone not steeped in the risks of the technology, into space. The public had become so accustomed to uneventful shuttle launches that the three major television networks did not even cover the liftoff of space shuttle Challenger live.

Even so, McAuliffe's presence revived enough interest and imagination that twice the usual number of reporters showed up at the Kennedy Space Center last Tuesday. The stands were filled with schoolchildren, and schools across the country had arranged to watch the liftoff live on television monitors. There was talk of a resurgence of enthusiasm for space, of a new generation of dreamers and scientists.

Six times the launch was delayed, but those in the stands seemed persuaded on the morning of Jan. 28 that at last they would see a liftoff. They included the parents, spouses, siblings, children and friends of the astronauts, all together as if members of one family.

In the early hours, seven proud astronauts walked toward the spacecraft, beaming. Scobee the commander; Smith the rookie astronaut-pilot; Onizuka, McNair and Resnik the mission specialists; Jarvis the Hughes engineer; McAuliffe the teacher -- the most diverse astronaut team in American history.

A playful flight technician presented an apple to McAuliffe, nicknamed the "teachernaut" by some, and she accepted it with her trademark, a full smile. She chatted with fellow crew members, pulled the huge white NASA helmet over her head and at 8:35 a.m. disappeared into the shuttle hatch.

Then they were in the hands of the technology that had never failed on liftoff, that product of 28 years of science, adventurism, and, in Wiesner's words, cold-blooded decisions. The Flight

Public affairs officer: The 51-L Mission is ready to go . . . . T minus 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, we have main engine start, 4, 3, 2, 1. And liftoff. Liftoff of the 25th space shuttle mission and it has cleared the tower . . . .

Mission Control: Challenger, go with throttle up.

Scobee: Roger, go with throttle up . . . .

[Long pause]

Public affairs officer: Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation. [Pause] Obviously a major malfunction. We have no downlink. [Long pause]

We have a report from the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded.