This is the winter of Ronald Reagan's discontent. His instincts failed him on the Philippine elections. The situation in South Africa grows worse, the Sandinistas still reign in Nicaragua and not even the anniversary celebration of an Irving Berlin war in Grenada offsets the recent tragedy in the suburbs of space. A symbol of American expertise and daring sways gently on the ocean bottom.

All these situations or setbacks, to one extent or another, have been influenced by Ronald Reagan's thinking. In the Philippines, he embraces authority even though it has been proven corrupt. In South Africa, similar statements and an amoral policy have put the United States in bed with racists. Nicaragua, squalid and a good six on the 10-point repressiveness scale, is nevertheless not the bogeyman f the president's imagination. The same holds for the contras. They are not the freedom fighters of Reagan rhetoric.

But of all the recent setbacks, the aftermath to the Challenger tragedy illustrates where Ronald Reagan's thinking goes wrong. His initial reaction was to reaffirm faith in the space program, to vow that manned missions would continue and to memorialize the six astronauts and one civilian who were killed. They were good and necessary words, and the president delivered them well.

But because Reagan likes both the goals and the style of the space program, because it excites his imagination, he anthropomorphized it and turned what is another government program into something out of the Oregon Trail -- a heroic enterprise of pioneers. "Your dedication and professionalism has moved and impressed us for decades," he told NASA workers in his TV address to the nation. They were the sort of words the president would never utter to welfare workers who brave inner-city slums or mine inspectors up to their knees in cold water. Pioneers wear white coats and do things the president likes; bureaucrats wear ties and do things he does not like.

It is becoming clear, though, that the men and women of NASA are bureaucrats too. The investigation into the shuttle explosion reveals that even at NASA memos went astray and supervisors were not given critical information. The head of the shuttle program itself, Jesse W. Moore, has said that he was not informed about low temperature readings at the base of a booster rocket. We are told that engineers for the rocket manufacturer warned that the weather was too cold for a safe launch and that NASA technicians themselves had doubts about the now-notorious O-rings -- all of it put down, maybe in triplicate, on paper.

This is the nitty-gritty of management and administration. But NASA has no administrator. It has not had one since Dec. 4, when James M. Beggs was placed on leave after having been indicted on fraud charges stemming from his days as a General Dynamics executive. Since then, NASA has had an acting director and, recently, no real general manager. He was relieved of his day-to-day managerial duties following the explosion.

What you have is a picture of an agency in some distress. But the president, who challenged NASA to do more with what it claims is substantially less, was content to stick with an acting director. So successful has Reagan become in removing himself from the consequences of his own policy decisions -- in mythologizing dash and daring and demonizing the pedestrian work of government -- that he was asked not a single question about NASA in his first post-explosion news conference.

Ultimately, maybe all the questions regarding policy will amount to nothing. Accidents do happen. But they are more likely when people -- bureaucrats -- are overworked, tired, poorly supervised, not well-motivated and either not well- administered or not administered at all. What's true for the Department of Health and Human Services is true for the space program. It's all government, all people. One is not a bureaucracy to be treated with scorn and the other a person to be treated with respect. We can reach for the stars if we must. But we will never get there if they are already in our eyes.