For the more than 1 million Americans who crowded the beaches and causeways around the Kennedy Space Center last week, and for millions of other Americans clustered around TV sets, the tension was palpable. As the countdown clock flashed out the number of seconds until lift-off, the eyes of an entire nation focused on Launch Pad 39-B and the gleaming white shuttle Discovery, flanked by its two solid rocket boosters and clinging to the side of the giant, rust- colored external fuel tank. In the minds of many, however, another vision intruded: the hellish yellow-orange burst in the middle of a Y-shaped cloud that 32 months earlier had marked the destruction of the shuttle Challenger.
Finally, spectators joined in for the last 15 seconds of countdown, the engines ignited and the shuttle rose majestically from the pad, carrying its crew of five veteran astronauts. Over the space center's loudspeakers came the triumphant announcement: "Americans return to space, as Discovery clears the tower." But the cheers were muted as the crowd -- many with clenched fists, gritted teeth and teary eyes -- nervously watched the spacecraft rise on its pillar of flame, then begin its roll out over the Atlantic. Again the visions of Challenger arose. Now the loudspeakers carried the voice of Mission Control in Houston, which took over from the Kennedy controllers seven seconds into the flight. "Go at throttle up," Houston called at around the 70-second mark, and more than a few stomachs knotted. That was the last command heard by the crew of Challenger, which exploded seconds later. "I was saying 'Please, please' as Discovery passed the 73-second mark," says Psam Ordener, wife of a Houston space engineer.
Discovery commander Rick Hauck promptly answered with a laconic "Roger go," bringing a smattering of applause and cheers that grew into a chorus near the two-minute mark, when the spacecraft successfully jettisoned its two spent solid rocket boosters. But experienced space observers did not relax until Discovery shut down its three main engines 6 1/2 minutes later, shucked off its external fuel tank, then slipped safely into orbit about 180 miles above the earth a half hour later. Declared elated space engineer John Kaltenbach: "This was the one that had to fly. It looks damn good. Oh, it just feels so good!"
The nation's collective sigh of relief could have launched a thousand shuttles. President Reagan opened an awards ceremony in the White House Rose Garden with the dramatic announcement, "America is back in space." Admitted < Reagan: "I think I had my fingers crossed like everybody else." In St. Charles, Mo., just after completing a campaign speech, George Bush got word about Discovery and hurriedly retook the stage. "I thought you might be interested," he told the crowd. "The shuttle is launched successfully, and America is back in space. We're back! America is back!" The crowd roared its approval. Declared Michael Dukakis, campaigning in New Jersey: "We're very proud of the astronauts."