It was the seventh launch of Space Shuttle Discovery, a rather routine flight to launch a data system into space. But to the American people, it represented so much more. The 1988 launch was the first in more than two years, since the tragic explosion of Challenger just 73 seconds into its flight. The successful launch of Discovery would mean a renaissance of sorts, a rebirth out of tragedy for NASA. More importantly, it would again renew the optimism and zeal of space watchers everywhere. TIME’s cover story, coupled with the issue’s “Whew!” cover line, underscored on the fear of failure that pervaded, and the jubilation and relief that ensued once the shuttle surmounted the hurdles of the launch.
But experienced space observers did not relax until Discovery shut down its three main engines 6 1/2 minutes later, shucked off its external fuel tank, then slipped safely into orbit about 180 miles above the earth a half hour later. Declared elated space engineer John Kaltenbach: “This was the one that had to fly. It looks damn good. Oh, it just feels so good!” The nation’s collective sigh of relief could have launched a thousand shuttles. President Reagan opened an awards ceremony in the White House Rose Garden with the dramatic announcement, “America is back in space.” Admitted Reagan: “I think I had my fingers crossed like everybody else.”