It was as perfect a launch for the space shuttle Columbia as a mission controller could want. At about T minus 7 seconds, the shuttle's three main engines burst to life, followed quickly by the thunder of the two solid-fuel boosters. The shuttle was climbing, along with the hopes and expectations of a nation that had begun to doubt its ability to maintain its once-vaunted technological leadership. The symbolism inherent in this space first was not lost on anyone watching the spectacular launch.
There was something unusual about watching this liftoff. Perhaps it was the fact that the tall, svelt projectiles -- from the Atlas boosters that provided the workhorse during the Mercury program to the vaulting Saturn V's that put the first man on the moon -- that hurtled a decade's worth of US astronauts into space had been replaced with what looked like a squat aircraft with rockets added here and there as afterthoughts.
"Smooth sailing, baby," were the last words heard from the shuttle crew before liftoff. Later, after the shuttle was out of view and orbiting earth, flight director Neil Hutchinson at mission control in Houston pronounced the shuttle a "super vehicle." With a broad smile and a huge sigh of relief he said, "After practicing for malfunctions for years, I kept waiting for something to go wrong -- but nothing did."
Ungainly as the shuttle and its boosters may have looked, there could be no question that astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen were strapped to five very "hot" power plants, all of which were performing perfectly. Indeed, they worked so well that the post-launch sequence had to be pushed forward because the climb into space was more rapid than expected.
The only hitch in the shuttle launch was the discovery that some of the thermal protection tiles had been lost during liftoff. NASA officials say the tiles are not in a critical area and therefore pose no hazard to the vehicle or crew.
Once in orbit, the vehicle passed a number of critical tests with flying colors, including the opening of the shuttle's cargo bay doors, which were critical to keeping the interior of the shuttle cool, and thus critical to the continuation of the mission.
In its broader significance, however, the stubby wings of the space shuttle Columbia also may be carrying American technological leadership once again to the forefront of national attention.
At least this is the hope of scientists and engineers who look to the shuttle not just as the beginning of an important new space program in and of itself, but also as a vehicle for raising American recognition of the importance of new technology.
The flip side of that view is concern that an unsuccessful flight may kindle new doubt about the quality of American workmanship and the nation's ability to remain a world leader in advanced technology.
That the shuttle already is some three years behind schedule has made it "emblematic" of the problems with American technology, says Williams College history of science Prof. Donald Beaver.
Right or wrong, he says, Americans increasingly wonder if "made in the USA" is any longer an assurance of the best. Professor Beaver insists the success of many imported goods, such as Japanese automobiles, has forged a perception in the United States that "we're losing our technological edge."
The shuttle could change that both in substance and in symbol, analysts agree. Designed to give the United States routine access to space, the shuttle could stimulate the development of new materials and technologies in the weightless environment beyond Earth's atmosphere.
Also, analysts give the mission considerable symbolic importance.
"If it succeeds, it will produce a certain euphoria," says Wesley Posvar, chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh and chairman of the Business and Higher Education Forum. He hopes the safe return of the Columbia will "popularize the importance of scientific research and development in the United States," which he asserts has been allowed to fall to too low a level in recent years.
Indeed, there is broad concern that the US may be short-changing its future by scrimping on its investment in research and development. An economist with the National Science Foundation points out that in 1980, the US invested about 2 .2 percent of its national wealth in research and development down about 25 percent from the level invested in 1967. The 1960s were a time of high R & D investment because of money flowing into the military sector to support the Vietnam war and also because of an aggressive US space program.
"The space program has been an important mechanism with which we have renewed our industrial engines since World War II," says Hubert Davis, a vice-president of Eagle Engineering Inc., in Houston.
However, Mr. Davis says space was underfunded in the 1970s -- a trend he hopes the shuttle may reverse. A successful maiden flight by the Columbia "will establish an environment in which the American people will once again be willing to make new investments and take new initiatives in new technology," he asserts.
Many analysts believe the shuttle owes its delays to stingy funding when the program was first authorized in 1972. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was given some $5 billion for the shuttle program, a sum that several analysts feel was too small and inevitably led to delays.
"The shuttle was never on a do-able schedule. NASA had to slip schedules to solve problems and that just made it worse because of inflation," says Sen. Harrison Schmitt (R) of New Mexico, a former astronaut.
NASA estimates the total cost of the shuttle program through the construction of two orbiters and the first four test flights will be about $10 billion.
Still, the shuttle is the most advanced spacecraft ever designed. It is a meld of sophisticated aircraft engineering, computer programming, and materials application, which many see as a testament to the very best in technologic innovation in the world today.
A "computer glitch" and some tiles that would not stay stuck have been the only problems. Considering all that could go wrong, NASA officials are pleased that these are the only problems encountered so far with the Columbia.
The computer problem forced postponement of the launch from April 10 to April 12 and was later described as a "failure to communication" -- the four primary computers that operate the shuttle sent information to the backup computer minutes before scheduled launch, but the backup was not ready to receive it. The timing was wrong and red lights flashed, but NASA later said it was nothing serious and could be easily avoided in the future.
The silica tiles, some of which shook lose from the Columbia during launch, are potentially more serious. The tiles -- some 30,000 of them -- coat the shuttle to protect it from heat which can reach 2,600 degrees F. on reentry. They must also withstand temperatures that drop to -250 degrees F. on orbit.
However, the importance of the tiles to the safety of the vehicle varies, depending on where they are located.
The tiles that were found missing when shuttle cameras panned the payload bay doors after they were opened some 1 1/2 hours into the flight are said to pose "no hazard to the crew or the vehicle." That is because they were on the upper rear portions of the shuttle, which actually undergo greater heat temperatures during launch than reentry. Indeed, one NASA spokesman said the loss of the isolated tiles may provide a measure of good news. There had been speculation that losing some of the ship's tiles might cause a "zipper effect" where the loss of one tile would cause large sections of the thermal protection system to peal off. That has not happened. NASA official are confident that no tiles were lost on the most important sections of the shuttle -- the nose of the ship, the wing edges, and the underbelly of the vehicle.