I was in ninth grade, the day the Challenger exploded. I heard the news in the hall, going from one class to the next. Some kid that I thought was kind of a dork pops up and says, "Hey, didja hear about the space shuttle? It blew up." And he smiled, like it was funny. Or maybe not that it was funny; maybe that was just his goofy 14-year-old-kid way of expressing something along the lines of "Huh. That's not what was supposed to happen."
By this time in my high school career, I was well on the way to becoming a music geek and wasn't nearly as interested in the space program as I had been in my "I'm gonna be an astronaut!" phase four or five years earlier. Therefore, I didn't know much at all about that particular shuttle mission outside of the publicity because a civilian, a teacher, was going to be on it. What was really weird, though, about that day in my school was that the news didn't rip through the school; few people were talking about it; none of my classes had teevee's with the footage. I didn't see any of the coverage until I got home from school that afternoon, at which point I planted myself in front of CBS.
It seems to me that the Challenger disaster really soured this country on space exploration, or at least it put some punctuation on a souring process that had been going on for a while. There were no goals, no real sense of purpose to the whole thing. We had once built ships to reach the Moon; now we were content to stay in low-Earth orbit. Most news items on teevee relating to shuttle missions were to show the whacky choice of music Houston had chosen for the astronauts' wake-up call. The shuttle itself was a dull-looking vehicle. The future had arrived, and it was clunky and boring...and then, awfully dangerous as well.
What are we doing in space? I have no idea. That makes me sad. When I was a kid, my conviction was rock solid that I was living in the generation that would walk on other worlds. I didn't realize that we were basically done walking on other worlds within a year of my birth. Alas.
To wrap this up: I was, as you can probably tell from my personal politics, never a big fan of President Ronald Reagan. But his speech to the nation after the Challenger disaster was masterful.
And then there was Richard Feynman's tenacity in focusing on the O-ring seals in the booster rockets: