Space for the future

We drove at dusk through the flat, scrub wilderness of Cape Canaveral, where alligators swim in ditches and eagles nest overhead. Our guide, an engineer with NASA, pointed to shadowy buildings sprinkled among the palm trees where training and research takes place for US manned and unmanned space probes.

We were on our way to the launching of an unmanned communications satellite, Westar IV. It would be my first ''live'' experience, though I have been a devoted fan of space and watched every historic moment on TV. I was excited.

Suddenly the pale orange rim along the horizon dimmed and night fell. As we crossed the Banana River causeway, we caught our first glimpse of the launch site. It glowed white, like a small, trim candle, in the glare of spotlights that pierced the sky above it.

The roped-off observation area looked like a lighted football field, with bleachers around an open, grassy spot facing the spotlights. I stood in the front line where veteran watchers had set up their cameras. Soon a voice from a loudspeaker announced from the launch site that the countdown was at four minutes and holding because of high winds.

The crowd became restless, dreading postponement. Children darted about as they do at picnics and fairs. Indeed, there was the same festive air. ''Old timers'' sat in lawn chairs they had brought from home; others stretched out on blankets spread on the grass. Most had picnic hampers and piles of sweaters in case of chill winds, though the air was soft and balmy.

Suddenly the announcer said, ''Three minutes and fifty-nine seconds.'' The countdown was on. A cheer went up from the crowd. The milling stopped, children returned to their families, there was a hush. The announcer's voice was clear and loud. There was an ''ohhhh,'' as the lights were turned off. We united in the dark for that last minute of waiting, and when the count came to ''twelve, eleven, ten,'' we joined in the count, chanting ''three, two, one, liftoff.''

There was a split second of absolute silence and blackness. Then: ignition. A fan of orange-yellow light blazed up from the launch site, fanning the black sky in an arc like an enormous, glorious sunrise, pushed up and out by enormous clouds of gray-white smoke. And from the midst of that orange-yellow glow, there shot up, as from a gigantic slingshot, a ball of fire. It was the tail of the 116-foot Delta rocket bearing the satellite and boosted into the sky at 1,500 miles per hour by nine rockets.

We applauded. We craned skyward as the fireball tumbled higher and in our direction. Then it veered off toward the Atlantic and its journey 22,640 miles above earth to relay signals for the printing of newspapers and magazines. As it veered, it became a streak, and we could glimpse for a moment the shadow of the rocket itself. It would be at the edge of earth's atmosphere in less than four minutes. We marveled.

The delayed roar of the blastoff rolled over us like the very thunder of thunder, louder than any explosion I had ever heard. Now there were other things to await - the jettison of solid rocket boosters and at three minutes fifty-seven seconds, the second-stage ignition. The red streak was now becoming a dim, white speck as it moved downrange. It looked, our engineer guide said, like a textbook launching.

The orange-yellow glow on the horizon evaporated. The stadium lights went on. The crowd surged toward the parking lot. We were the last to leave. The stadium area was empty, but the voice on the loudspeaker droned on. We could hear it echoing behind us as we climbed into our car. We drove home in an aura of victory, as people do when their team has won the ball game. Our team had won another space shot. We were happy.

Yet I must confess that for me, there was a dark side to this joyous event. It haunts me. For I know that orange-yellow spray of light which gave us a peaceful sunrise (glorious) - a dawn of scientific knowledge - could easily be at some future time and place the orange-yellow of a mushroom nuclear cloud (most horrible).

That voice droning on the loudspeaker could easily, at some future time and place, be speaking not just to an empty stadium but to an empty earth.

What can I conclude? Only that we still have choices. That there is yet time to make the choice for good. I thank God for that - and pray.

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