By now the images have become so firmly etched in America's collective consciousness that one doesn't even have to see them again to re-experience the horror of that unforgettable moment: The space shuttle Challenger hurtling toward space, tracing a graceful arch in the azure Florida sky; the nervous smiles on the faces of anxious family members and friends at the observation area; the sudden burst of smoke and debris, forming a disquieting cloud where, just moments earlier, there was only blue; the agonizing moment of realization that contorts the faces of loved ones on the earth below.

It was the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, one of those rare, historical days when most of us remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard - or saw - the news.Television was an important part of the Challenger story. It beamed it live to those who happened to be watching the shuttle launch on CNN. Everyone else had ample opportunity to see it on video-tape, as TV news operations world-wide repeated the explosion that claimed seven lives again and again - often in excruciating slow motion.

Television brought us the news of the tragedy. And then it helped us deal with it, as millions of concerned citizens turned the airwaves into a sort of communal source of grieving and comfort.

No one questioned television's role during a time of crisis like that. OK, maybe a few wondered at the medium's tendency to intrude on the private mourning of the families of Challenger's victims. But for the most part television news was praised for the responsible, human way it provided information - and solace.

But now, four years later, television's entertainment philosophy is being called into question over ABC's docudrama treatment of Challenger (Sunday at 7 p.m., Ch. 4) in a three-hour made-for-TV movie that has been showered with controversy and protest from the moment it was first proposed by producer George Englund Sr.

"The difficulties I encountered started with the first meeting at NASA headquarters in Washington, when I proposed the idea of doing a film on Challenger," Englund told television critics in Los Angeles last month. "That was obviously the most devastating accident in the history of the agency. They were in disarray and still demoralized. The last thing they were interested in was someone coming down the pike with an idea to do a story on Challenger."

Nor were the folks at Utah's Morton-Thiokol Inc., manufacturer of the solid-fuel rocket booster and the ill-fated O-rings, especially cooperative - that is, if you don't count Roger Boisjoly, a former Morton-Thiokol engineer who has been outspoken in his criticism of the company every since the shuttle was allowed to lift off.

"No one from Morton-Thiokol would speak to us," said Englund, "so it's been tough to try to state their position clearly." (Boisjoly, by the way, is the only real-life character whose rights were acquired for the film. No other rights were acquired, according to Englund, because "none was essential to have. Since it was a public event, all those connected with it are considered public figures.")

Which brings us to another group of people who have been less than enthusiastic about "Challenger": the families of the brave men and women who lost their lives aboard the shuttle. Although none will talk to the press now (for fear of stirring up more controversy and thus bringing more attention to the film), at least three widows - Jane Smith, Lorna Onizuka and Cheryl McNair - have publicly denounced the production as "inaccurate" and "an invasion of our private lives."

When asked about the family reaction, Englund was elusive. While acknowledging that "the families showed no inclination that they wanted to have a film made," he insisted that they "were helpful" in working through early script revisions.

"I think we managed to at least clarify our vision of what the film was going to be and distinguish it from what they might have considered it to be," Englund told critics. "So, along the way, they read several versions of the script and were helpful in getting to the final version."

The implication, of course, is that their was family approval of the final script, something several critics in the room were quick to question.

"I don't know what it sounds like," Englund fired back when cornered on the matter. "If I wanted to say that they came around and approved, I would have said that . . . I'm saying I contacted them. I met with them. They read the script. We discussed it. And where personal things were involved, or things that they knew about, I benefited from what they said."

Whatever that means.

Even non-family members have been touched by the controversy. After reading TV Guide's cover story on "Challenger," a tearful Laura Edwards of Bountiful called the Deseret News to complain about a movie that "literally tramples all over the feelings of the families involved" and presents as reality entire scenes that are "admittedly fabricated."

"They are calling this `freedom of speech,"' Edwards said. "But all I can see is gloating over tragedy, lack of regard for individual feelings and privacy and admitted lies."

Despite such heated opposition, however, Englund managed to complete "Challenger." In his mind it is a tribute to Francis R. "Dick" Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Randall McNair, Judith Resnick, Ellison Inozuka, Gregory Jarvis and school teacher Christa McAuliffe. It attempts to bring humanity to the tragedy by portraying them as real people, although my impression was that if these men and women were really as constantly upbeat and heroic as they are portrayed here they wouldn't have needed Morton-Thiokol's solid rocket boosters. They could have just walked on air into space.

Karen Allen is perky and cute as McAuliffe - excessively so. And Barry Bostwick plays Scobee like, well, like you'd expect Bostwick to play Scobee - bland. The show's best turn probably belongs to Peter Boyle as Boisjoly, a driven, obsessive technician who tries to stop impending disaster, but can't.

As a piece of drama "Challenger" lacks balance, with good guys that are too good to be true and heavies who aren't really that heavy. As a docudrama, it lacks authenticity, inventing scenes and meaningful exchanges that couldn't possibly be known to anyone except those who have died and those who have refused to cooperate.

But it is as a contribution to television's coverage of the Challenger tragedy that "Challenger" finds its biggest failure. The medium brought dignity and restraint to its coverage of the story as it happened. Given the perspective of time and distance, however, ABC's docudrama stumbles over itself, bringing nothing new to the story and adding only insult to a national injury.