Jason DavisJul 03, 2013

A patriotic return to space

It is September 29, 1988.

Space Shuttle Discovery sits on the launch pad beneath a partly cloudy Florida sky. An all-veteran crew is strapped into the orbiter, wearing bulky partial pressure suits for the first time since STS-4. Ground controllers have given the go-ahead for launch, after high-altitude winds and blown fuses delayed the launch for an hour and 38 minutes. When the crew closes their visors, and an alarm indicates something is wrong.

"We are anticipating the clock will hold at T-minus 31 seconds due to a failure," says public affairs officer Hugh Harris.

The cabin pressure inside the shuttle is abnormal. Controllers quickly determine that the new suits, which protect the crew in the event of a cabin breach, have caused the change in pressure. The hold is waived, and the countdown continues. 

"We have a go for auto-sequence start," Harris says.

Twenty-five seconds later, Discovery's main engines ignite. 

"Three, two, one, zero and liftoff! Liftoff!" exclaims Harris, barely audible above a chorus of screams, cheers and claps. "Americans return to space as Discovery clears the tower!"

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After a minute of flight, CAPCOM John Creighton issues the call of "Discovery, go at throttle-up." Chances are, it registers somewhere in pilot Richard Covey's mind that he radioed the same phrase to Challenger commander Dick Scobee two years ago—the last transmission the doomed shuttle ever received.

Discovery's redesigned solid rocket boosters separate without a hitch, eliciting another round of cheers. The next few minutes are equally uneventful, and the shuttle reaches orbit.

America is back in space.

Liftoff of Discovery, STS-26
Liftoff of Discovery, STS-26 Space Shuttle Discovery lifts off to begin STS-26, the first shuttle flight since the Challenger disaster.Image: NASA

I was several months shy of kindergarten when Space Shuttle Challenger and its seven crew members were tragically lost. But when Discovery kicked off the STS-26 return-to-flight mission, I was in second grade, watching the launch live in my classroom. My mother recorded the flight on our family's VCR, and I played the tape over and over. I remember being mesmerized by the little things: The orbiter access arm. The beanie cap. The gimbal and flight surfaces test. The switchover to internal power.

I was equally entranced by the strong sense of patriotism that accompanied Discovery into space. Media coverage parroted Hugh Harris' liftoff phrase, applauding America's return to space. Stars and stripes seemed to be everywhere. A huge gathering of well-wishers greeted Discovery when it landed at Edwards Air Force Base. As the orbiter touched down, a recording of the Star-Spangled Banner rose up from the crowd. The crew emerged carrying a large American flag.

The crew of STS-26
The crew of STS-26 The all-veteran crew of STS-26. From left to right: Front: Richard Covey, Rick Hauck. Rear: David Hilmers, George Nelson, John Lounge.Image: NASA

Watching the coverage of STS-26 twenty-five years later, I still find it easy to get swept up in the excitement and pride. But what made this such a patriotic mission?

Challenger stung the country like no other space disaster. It was the largest single loss of life in spaceflight history, and the first for America during an actual mission. Children across the country were tuned in to watch Christa McAuliffe become the first civilian and teacher to fly into space. 

The disaster happened on live television in front of the entire world. There was something particularly ominous about the cloud of smoke left hanging in the sky over the Atlantic. Contrails from debris seemed to drip toward the ocean like tears.

The myth of routine spaceflight had been shattered. When investigations revealed what caused the accident, grief turned to anger and embarrassment. The Challenger disaster was no one-in-a-million fluke or the result of some unforeseeable glitch—it was caused by the banal human quality of overconfidence.

All of this happened in the context of the Cold War. While relations between the Soviets and the West had begun to thaw slightly, much of the country still saw space as the symbolic and strategic high ground. 

And so it went that NASA, along with the rest of the nation, was not about to give up on spaceflight. The Shuttle's solid rocket boosters were redesigned. New safety measures—to the point of overkill—were put in place. NASA's managerial structure received an overhaul. In less than three years, the world's most recognizable spacecraft was back on the launch pad.

America loves a good comeback story. 

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