AN ANXIOUS AMERICA watched and eventually found comfort in Discovery's thunderous liftoff from Kennedy Space Center yesterday. The shuttle's powerful thrusters traced a familiar arc across the Florida sky, and seven passengers were launched safely into Earth's orbit riding an old war horse of NASA's fleet. There was a time when such a moment would have seemed routine. But that changed forever with the explosion of Challenger in 1986. We were reminded, too, of the day two years and five months ago, when Columbia disintegrated across Texas, damaged by something as mundane as a piece of insulation that struck the shuttle's left wing during its initial ascent, an unnoticed wound that led to the shuttle's destruction on re-entry.
Despite several unnerving launch delays (the last, just two weeks ago, caused by a mysteriously malfunctioning fuel sensor), Discovery is an affirmation, albeit an imperfect one, of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's technical skills. NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin said afterward that the launch, the first since Columbia, had pulled the program "from the depths of despair." Scientists took elaborate precautions to avoid a repeat of the February 2003 accident, including keeping a watchful set of electronic eyes out for falling debris. No damage was reported.
For the next 12 days, the shuttle crew will visit the International Space Station to make repairs, deliver supplies, install new equipment, and test and evaluate safety procedures. Not exactly a glamorous mission, but there is something to be said for uneventfulness. Their greatest achievement would be a safe return to Earth on Aug. 7. That's when the nation can rightfully breathe a collective sigh of relief.
Space travel is one of this country's most important endeavors, but it will always carry certain risks. Today, it may be the shuttle's aging technology that causes concern, but in the future, when the next generation of spaceships is created, it will still be a dangerous enterprise. That is the nature of exploration. Commander Eileen Collins and her crew understand the dangers and do not take them lightly, but they have bravely chosen to lead the nation's return to spaceflight despite them. We wish them a safe journey.