Yesterday the space shuttle Discovery rose slowly, surely, from its steel scaffolding into thin air. So lifted some of the burden felt by Americans and their space agency since the 1986 Challenger accident.
Reporters from all over the world fixed their eyes tensely on smoke-trailing orange flames, until the five astronauts and their spaceship were out of sight. Some reporters accidentally dropped their pens to clap, seeming to pull the shuttle upward with their hopes and prayers.
NASA administrator James Fletcher congratulated the launch team soon after the shuttle was orbit-bound.
``It's been a long wait,'' he said. ``We've fixed all the problems. When we were ready to go, we went.... It's the first of a new era.''
The ``new era'' will include launches from the shuttle of important planetary missions - the Magellan mapping mission of Venus and Galileo's fly-by of Jupiter - as well several world-class observatories. Beyond those waits the planned US space station.
Although this launch was spectacular, the race NASA faces is not a single-mission sprint. The agency has stepped onto the track to begin its own marathon. Instead of another competitor, it will be racing the clock - a rigorous schedule of 49 shuttle flights over the next five years, with more to come. Twelve of those are scheduled for winter months, when shuttle hardware and NASA's ability to forecast and accommodate the weather will be thoroughly tried.
Discovery's current payload includes a space communications satellite and several microgravity experiments.
The crew includes five astronauts: commander Rick Hauck; pilot Robert Covey; and three mission specialists, Mike Lounge, George Nelson, and David Hilmers. All have flown on earlier shuttle missions in their present positions.
The NASA launch team spent several anxious hours before the 11:37 a.m. (EDT) liftoff evaluating wind conditions in the upper atmosphere. The winds earlier in the morning were considered too light and from the wrong direction.
According to Thomas Utsman, deputy director of the Kennedy Space Center and director of shuttle management, wind conditions had been a concern earlier in the week. Wednesday night the experts involved with the shuttle's structural materials, including Rockwell International, ``were able to refine the models ... they found some 4 to 5 percent more in structural margins than we anticipated,'' he said.
``The winds smoothed out over night ... although the launch did require a waiver,'' says Mr. Utsman. The waiver ``was not the result of a judgment but of a refined engineering analysis,'' he says.
As far as launches go, ``this was not a particularly challenging one. It was a very good bird that went up the hill,'' Utsman said.
``The fact that we launched on the day that was scheduled ought to be a great psychological boost,'' says John Logsdon of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
``It should let us regain some confidence in schedules. There is nothing negative that can be said about it,'' Dr. Logsdon says.
Logsdon, however, still questions NASA's ability to meet the coming schedule of flights.
When asked about NASA's ability to meet future schedules, Forrest McCartney, Kennedy Space Center director, said that he expected no slip-ups, and that the ``facts are that there has never been sloppy work done.''
``Our hardware was pretty good to us,'' says launch director Robert Seick. ``We were one hour, 38 minutes late. Some say that's months and some say it is years later than we should have been back in space.''
Spokesmen from solid booster manufacturer Morton Thiokol say that the launch provides a stamp of approval for the redesigned solid-rocket motors. Twenty-four shuttle missions had been successful with the previous design.
The role of NASA in launching payloads has not gone unquestioned. Ideally, says space historian Walter McDougal, NASA would not be responsible for routine launches. He says the space agency should be used for what it does best - ``adventurous, high-technology research.'' He believes these routine launches drain NASA of money and energy when it should be concentrating on finding better ways of getting into space.
Discovery is scheduled to land at 12:33 p.m. (EDT) Monday at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The next shuttle, Atlantis, is scheduled to fly Nov. 17. It will carry a Department of Defense payload. Seven launches are planned for 1989.