I didn't realize it was 20 years ago today. Makes me feel pretty old.
I was in New Jersey at the time, president of the 8th grade class at the private school I attended and out for the day attending a special workshop for the state's future leaders at the Oak Knoll School.
Mid afternoon, shortly after lunch, as we were making presentations on the projects we spent the day working on (how to address New Jersey's mounting trash problem - my solution was to turn it into those highway sound barrier walls that have cropped up all over America the last 20 years) when a teacher came in to interrupt the event. She announced that a terrible tragedy had occurred, asked us all to sit down, and then solemly told of the Challenger's fate.
While the shock wasn't the same as 9/11 (no where near) it was nevertheless one of the most shocking events (with the greatest impact on the national psych) that had occurred in my lifetime. Still to this day, I really can think of few things that seemed to impact the nations mood as much. 9/11 of course, but I don't recall anything else. Perhaps the hostages in Iran. Watergate, for sure (though I only slightly recall the fallout - not recollection of Nixon but I knew who Ford was at the time).
In the midst of the great arms race with the evil Soviet empire, President Reagan was correct to describe it as a "national tragedy."
We've moved on as a country - and sadly the last time a Space Shuttle sufferred a catastrophic disaster few relatively seemed to notice - but Challenger remains one of the defining moments for a small generation of Americans.