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Shuttle launch brings cheers, tears, memories

Emotion overcame space workers in Houston, who jumped to their feet and broke into applause and tears as they watched space shuttle Discovery climb into the sky.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Emotion overcame space workers in Houston, who jumped to their feet and broke into applause and tears as they watched space shuttle Discovery climb into the sky.

“Go! Go! Go!” screamed Gyla Whitlow, one of 700 NASA employees jammed into a Johnson Space Center auditorium Tuesday where the televised liftoff was shown.

“Words can’t describe it,” said a tearful Kirsten Beyer, who works on projects for the international space station, Discovery’s destination on this mission.

About 1,000 miles to the east in Florida, nearly 2,500 NASA guests cheered, whistled and clapped from grandstands across a lagoon three miles from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. A sea of sunglasses and smiles tilted upward as the fiery-tailed shuttle sliced behind a puffy cloud and then popped back into view, coaxing more hoots from the crowd.

Space center engineer Kristin Rumpf said she felt “elated, thankful, proud, happy, ecstatic that it was a good launch — and we made it this far.”

“It’s been such an overload,” she added. “It’s been a long 2½ years.”

After the launch, NASA workers, families of astronauts, first lady Laura Bush, the president’s brother Gov. Jeb Bush, other politicos, and foreign dignitaries swarmed into the space center.

James Kennedy, the center’s director, shrugged off a balky microphone when Mrs. Bush came to offer congratulations. “We may not have a microphone that works, but we have a shuttle that works,” he said to the cheering of dozens of flight operators.

“Thank you so much for your hard work. You’re inspiring everybody,” said the first lady.

Savoring NASA’s traditional post-launch meal of beans and cornbread, crew-support worker Kevin Regula expressed relief at the launch.

“Thank God,” he said. “It’s been long overdue. We need to have more like that. It’s a big morale booster not only for us at NASA, but ... for the rest of the country.”

Across the nation and beyond, fans of space travel felt the prelaunch jitters and rejoiced at the liftoff. “I felt scared for the launch, because I was hoping it wouldn’t blow up or anything. But it got into space safely, so I’m happy,” said 9-year-old Olivia Schaab, who watched the televised launch from her elementary school in St. Paul, Minn.

Four teenagers drove through the night from Beverly, Mass., to witness the liftoff from New York’s Times Square and take in a Yankees game later. “I’d rather watch this, because you can see a baseball game anytime,” said Reynaldo Peguero, 17.

In Chigasaki, Japan, hometown of Discovery astronaut Soichi Noguchi, about 300 people popped firecrackers at City Hall and cheered “Banzai!” — an expression of congratulations that means “long life.”

Agency managers acknowledged that the hopes for American space travel — at least in the near future — were riding on this flight, along with its seven crew members.

“If we were to lose another shuttle, I think obviously the shuttle program would be out of business, and the United States would be years away from putting another crew of people in space,” said NASA administrator Michael Griffin before the flight.

It was the sobering memory of the Columbia disaster 2½ years ago — with the lesson that a landing can go bad even after a good-looking launch — that tempered Tuesday’s exuberance.

NASA toned down its usual post-launch celebrations, bowing to solemn thoughts about the Columbia astronauts. “There are echoes of Columbia all around us,” said Col. Pamela Melroy, an astronaut who helped inventory the broken pieces of its crew module.

“But you’d have to understand the crew,” she added. “For them, this is the moment they’d want to see.”

Astronaut Daniel Tani in Houston agreed with that sentiment. “This is a very visible way of continuing that legacy. For all of the JSC family, we carry those guys around with us every day.”