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Even as NASA fades, the launch of space shuttle Discovery can still lift the soul

I'll have two lasting memories of watching the launch of the space shuttle Discovery on Sunday evening.

One, of course, is a blastoff that NASA veterans said ranked among the most spectacular ever, with the shuttle's vapor trail taking on the pink and orange of a Florida sunset.

The other is of the double rows of brake lights in the monster traffic jams heading to and from Cape Canaveral.

Funny thing, though. Once I got over the extreme frustration of sitting in an idling car next to a sign unhelpfully warning of "heavy traffic ahead,'' I found this second image almost as inspiring as the first.

Because it means people still care about the space program. They are still in love with the idea of exploration and discovery, still love to hear the rumble, like a Harley-Davidson to the 10th power, produced by lighting off the equivalent of two skyscrapers filled with rocket fuel.

Which, really, wasn't what I was expecting.

I took this trip because I'd heard that the shuttle program would be phased out in 2010.

With the next manned launch after that realistically scheduled for who-knows-when, I figured I'd better indulge my son's heartbreaking fascination with space before the program dies altogether.

I say heartbreaking because I often think how different it would be if he'd been born in 1955 rather than 1995.

He wouldn't have had to hunt down information on the NASA Web site. He could have talked with any neighbor about zero gravity and retro-rockets. He could have learned about the Gemini and Apollo programs the way I did — in my Weekly Reader, and those luscious photo spreads in Life magazine and on the CBS Evening News.

Remember that boxy little media building where Walter Cronkite used to set up on launch days?

It's still there. It still looks exactly the same. So does just about everything else at the Kennedy Space Center, where we took my son on his birthday last fall.

Foolish me. I still thought "space age'' meant ultra-modern. Really, it refers to a little historical window when we were excited about adventure and technology. That's what the space center celebrates. It's like the Henry Ford Museum, with less awareness that its era has passed.

The most pathetic display explains NASA's future manned mission, the Constellation project.

Its first destination, the moon, is the stuff of history books, not dreams. Its Ares rocket looks like a slightly sleeker version of the one that took us there 40 years ago, the Saturn V. Turns out it will also use the same fuel, primarily liquid hydrogen.

I'm sorry to pile on the criticism of poor old NASA.

Its decline is old news, of course. And this newspaper's editorial page recently said NASA had failed to justify Constellation.

And you have to wonder whether the $19.7 billion President Obama's 2010 budget has devoted to NASA will be well spent.

But, after Sunday, I don't wonder if this money could be well spent. Because the launch reminded me, at least as well as any of those displays at the space center, of the time when we were all excited about space travel and everyone seemed to realize how much could be learned from it. And isn't that how we're supposed to be using stimulus money — to develop new technology?

When we left Brooksville late Sunday afternoon, I pictured us running into a few other diehard spectators and figured we'd arrive with at least an hour to spare.

But just about that time, the Florida Today Web site posted a story about the huge crowd drawn by the news that the shuttle program was coming to an end. The Titusville park where we intended to watch the launch was already packed; traffic was at a standstill.

More than three hours later, we had inched forward just far enough to watch the launch from the bridge over the Indian River. The grass aprons at its base were crammed with campers and folks sitting in lawn chairs, pointing to the horizon and holding binoculars. In the last seconds before liftoff, cars also filled the shoulders on the span itself.

And though traffic continued to roar by and a police officer with a bullhorn tried to clear the mob, I still heard a collective gasp when the shuttle lifted off and, several seconds later, when we heard and felt the famous rumble.

My son looked as captivated as I hoped he would, and, right then at least, the future of space flight seemed far from dead.

Even as NASA fades, the launch of space shuttle Discovery can still lift the soul 03/16/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 16, 2009 7:08pm]

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