The Magic Is Back!

On a thundering pillar of fire, Discovery carries the nation's hopes aloft again

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Oct. 10, 1988 TIME Cover: Whew! America Returns to Space

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Six hours later, Americans had more good news from space as they watched the televised deployment from Discovery's cargo bay of the $100 million Tracking and Data Relay Satellite. And so, on the first day of its scheduled four-day mission, the five-man Discovery crew achieved one of its major goals -- sending TDRS toward its designated orbit -- and seemed well on its way toward the other: a successful test flight of the newly refurbished shuttle. Discovery's leap into space seemed at last to have given the nation, as well as NASA, a long-needed catharsis, purging it of the lingering horror of the Challenger disaster, restoring the battered pride of Americans in their technological prowess and providing new impetus to a languishing space program.

Despite all the euphoria, some tough questions remained, not only about the future of the shuttle program but also about where the Discovery mission would lead the country's space program in the years ahead. Since the Challenger tragedy, America's lead over the Soviets has slipped, ambitious plans for scientific experiments in space have stalled, and commercial and military payloads have for the most part been grounded. Declared J.R. Thompson, director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama: "One good launch doesn't make a space program, but it's a damn good start!"

It certainly was. As the shuttle eased into orbit, mission commander Hauck felt only delight at the immediate tasks at hand. "We're looking forward to the next four days," he said. "We have a lot to do, and we're going to have a lot of fun doing it." Several hours later, astronauts Mike Lounge and David Hilmers, manipulating controls in the cabin, raised and tilted the TDRS package in the cargo bay, and activated springs that pushed it out of the open doors into space. After Hauck and pilot Dick Covey had maneuvered the shuttle to a safe 45 miles away, the TDRS rocket ignited, sending the satellite farther away from earth. Later that night, the TDRS rocket's second stage precisely nudged the satellite into a geosynchronous orbit, where it hovered 22,250 miles above the Pacific Ocean.

There, like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, it unfolded two huge solar panels and two large umbrella-like antennas. Together with its sister satellite, TDRS-1 (already in orbit over the Atlantic), the new TDRS will give NASA the ability to communicate through a single ground installation with dozens of U.S. civil and military satellites.

While the other astronauts continued to check out Discovery's systems, Pinky Nelson began the first of eleven science experiments: growing crystals, which form more precisely in zero gravity, of specialized proteins such as gamma interferon and an enzyme found in the AIDS virus. By studying the crystals, scientists at the Center for Macromolecular Crystallography at the University of Alabama-Birmingham hope to learn more about the structure of the proteins, which may enable researchers to create new disease-fighting drugs. Other experiments scheduled during the mission included the production and study of crystalline organic thin films, evaluation of an onboard infrared communications system and the production in four space furnaces of special metallic alloys.

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