Today, we all count 3-2-1. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
May 30th, 1998. We land in
Orlando. On the car-rental bus we meet a man who,
like us, has come to see the rocket launch. His
company built the external liquid-fuel tank that'll
lift Discovery into orbit. It's made of a
new aluminum, and it weighs four tons less than
older tanks. My wife and I glance at each other as
the shadow of the external tank exploding under
Challenger passes between us. A new
technology is making its first flight!
We stop for supper at a Cocoa Beach restaurant.
Photos of astronauts deck its walls. The waitress
says she sees every launch. She watched
Challenger. She recites technical
particulars. History is being made here, and she
understands that she's part of it.
Sunday afternoon: We tour the Kennedy Space Center.
We're like country mice in the city. Here's the old
Saturn V rocket, longer than a football field, with
the explosive capacity of an atom bomb.
Monday noon: the wife of a Discovery
crew member hosts a picnic. We all come to express
our good wishes. The gathering is quiet and
supportive. The astronaut's daughter and her friend
take turns holding a puppy while his wife moves
from one group of friends to another. At length I
shake her hand and tell her I look forward to a
flawless flight. "So do I," she replies flatly.
Tuesday: two hours left in the countdown. Hundreds
of us mill about under that Saturn Rocket. A score
of astronauts mix with the crowd -- shaking hands,
signing autographs, putting us at ease. No one
doubts that they're special people. These few
represent a vast community that's made this flight
possible. And they've been chosen well. I ask one,
"What're the last three hours like, closed in the
shuttle, waiting?" "You clear your mind and
rehearse your tasks," he says. "Your training's
done. It's out of your hands."
Liftoff minus minutes: We all focus on the pad. No
carnival atmosphere. The astronauts are out there
alone -- no human within three miles, and our task
is to will them into the sky. Three, two, one.
Clouds of vapor roll silently away from the pad.
Then orange flame. The rocket is a tiny focal point
on a column of fire. Sixteen seconds pass, and a
cosmic roll of thunder reaches us.
The crowd's initial cry of relief falls quiet. We
wait for the solid boosters (the ones with the
famous O-rings) to detach. The flame abruptly
widens and we make out two fading side tendrils.
The boosters are away, and that new external tank
now hurls six brave men and women toward rendezvous
with the Mir Space Station.
We move quietly back to our buses. Twenty-third
century historians will recall more about these
events than they will about kings and battles. And
we're all out there riding the rocket:
engineers, teachers, waitresses, managers,
theoreticians and machinists. We savor our many
roles in shaping the future. It makes sense for
NASA to include us all in these launches. These
are, after all, the first tentative steps of our
species away from Cradle Earth.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds