Americans were horrified Tuesday as they huddled in shock around television sets and watched over and over the fiery explosion of the space shuttle Challenger that killed six astronauts and schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.
''There just isn't anything you can talk about,'' said Rep. Denny Smith, R-Ore., a career Air Force pilot. ''We often think we're in charge, but the good Lord calls the shots.''
''Death occurs every day of the week,'' said Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, ''but when it occurs before your eyes, it is so much more difficult to accept.''
A shaken first lady Nancy Reagan watched a live television broadcast of the explosion. Her first words were, ''Oh my God, no.''
The first civilian ever to ride aboard the shuttle, Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, though visibly shaken by the tragedy, said, ''I would go again tomorrow.''
Rep. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who flew on the shuttle this month, gave a speech on the House floor, his voice straining, but not breaking, and quoted Helen Keller's writing.
'''Life is either a daring adventure or nothing,''' he said.
At McCormick Junior High School in Cheyenne, Wyo., science teacher Michael Pearson said he was in ''total shock.''
''It's like getting a message your whole family was killed,'' said Pearson, one of the more than 100 teacher semi-finalists who competed against McAuliffe to be the first ordinary citizen to fly into space.
But he added, ''I still think I'd take the very next one up.''
Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called New Hampshire social studies schoolteacher McAuliffe an ''American hero'' and ''a symbol of hope and optimism for teachers and students around the nation.''
President Reagan ordered flags flown at half staff on all federal buildings, military installations, naval ships and embassies for one week ''as a mark of respect to the memory'' of the seven Challenger astronauts.
In Washington state, flags were lowered to honor shuttle commander Francis Scobee, who graduated from Auburn High School in 1957 and went to night school to earn his degree in aerospace engineering.
School counselor Ed Bean described him as ''very humble and very accommodating, a very warm man who could be your next door neighbor.''
In downtown Seattle, as in many cities nationwide, business people and shoppers huddled in stunned disbelief around television sets.
''It's terrible,'' said Bill Scott, 34, of Seattle. ''Things have become so routine that when something like this happens, you just don't know what to think.''
Math teacher Donald Nutter, who taught astronaut Judith Resnik during her years at Firestone High School in Akron, Ohio, said news of the explosion stunned the school Tuesday morning.
Resnik, he said, was a ''very quiet young lady, but an outstanding student.''
Vice President George Bush, quickly dispatched by Reagan to Cape Canaveral, Fla., described the accident as an ''enormous tragedy.''
Sen. Nancy Kassenbaum, R-Kan., noted that the successful record of the space program had made shuttle launches almost commonplace.
''This comes as a real jolt. It makes you realize that it is not something to be taken for granted,'' she said.
Senate Republican leader Robert Dole, reflecting the mood on Capitol Hill, said he was ''stunned'' by the explosion, and House Speaker Thomas O'Neill ordered his chamber into a two-hour recess.
House Chaplain William Ford urged the nation to pray for the shuttle victims.
Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, the first American to orbit Earth, said, ''I guess I always knew there would be a day like this ... We all hoped it could be pushed back forever ... I feel a tremendous personal loss. They were carrying our hopes and dreams.''
Eastern Airlines Chairman Frank Borman, a former astronaut whose Apollo flight circled the moon in 1968, said he was ''deeply saddened by the tragedy.''
The first pilot to break the sound barrier, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager, of Grass Valley, Calif., said, ''When you have an accident like this it doesn't mean the end of everything.''
European television stations interrupted regular programs to report the disaster, with British and French television relaying live coverage from the U.S. Cable News Network.
The Soviet news agency Tass reported the disaster in a one-sentence dispatch from New York about 35 minutes after the explosion.
Soviet Ambassador Vasily Safronchuk, No. 2 man in the Soviet U.N. mission in New York, expressed ''my mission's deep sorrow'' and conveyed ''to all concerned, particularly families of crew members, our deepest sympathy.''
In Hammondsport, N.Y., artist and winemaker Walter Taylor said he and many of the employees at Bully Hill Winery broke down and cried when they saw the shuttle explode on television.
''Even though we've done it 56 times, it's one of those things that, any time you leave the ground there's the possibility of problems,'' said Taylor, a member of NASA's official team of artists. ''It is still in many ways experimental.''
A school district in Bath, N.Y., planned counseling for students upset by their televised view of the explosion.
Florida Gov. Bob Graham, who said he saw the explosion in the air as he approached Jacksonville airport, canceled the rest of a three-day, 12-city campaign tour.
''I felt a tremendous sense of sadness and depression,'' Graham said. ''There had been such exhilaration ... and then to learn that in fact what we were seeing was death and tragedy.''