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Shuttle launches U.S. pride

It was 3 a.m. Wednesday when we pulled out of the driveway in the pouring rain. The deserted streets and lightning flashes in the northern sky made everything familiar look eerie and strange. We were headed "out east" (as they say on Long Island) to see the launch of the space shuttle Columbia, due to lift off at 8 a.m. from Cape Canaveral.

My daughter-in-law, Barbara, brought along exchange student Mireia Algenet, and I was anxious for her to see this launch before she returns to Spain. Mireia is graduating from Springstead High School on Tuesday. "Are we crazy, or what?" laughed Barbara.

"I guess a lot of people would say so," I said, but I wasn't going to reason myself out of this trip.

Husband Dear couldn't come because of work, and Barbara's husband, Steve, was already on his way to the Cape. NASA had provided him and a co-worker with passes to the Shuttle Landing Facility, where Columbia would land if the mission was aborted or if the California landing site couldn't be used on their return.

We didn't have passes for anything quite so special, but we did have permission to view the launch from inside the Kennedy Space Center.

By the time we got to Orlando, the rain had stopped, but the odds against a lift-off were stacking up because of the weather. As the gray dawn arrived, we were all set with a great view of the launching pad. The clouds looked as threatening as ever.

We watched each hole in the cloud cover as it played games with NASA. We could hear the astronauts talking to Mission Control over the loudspeakers, and the countdown was flawless. Everything was go. But if the sky didn't clear before 10 a.m., Columbia would have to try another day.

Talk about suspense. It wasn't long before we began hearing all that stuff about "T-minuses" and "hold." The weather reconnaissance plane sent back gloom and doom messages, and I was trying to convince myself I wouldn't feel too disappointed if the launch was postponed. It didn't work.

About 9:15, the sky brightened, and the crowd shouted when we finally heard, in that strange language they speak at NASA, that they had a "go." The countdown began again, and, at last, it came to minutes and seconds.

"5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... 1," and all I could see was huge billowing clouds of gray and red smoke. For a breathtaking second, I wondered if everyone had been killed in a horrible explosion, and then we saw the brilliant light of the rockets, and my heart soared as I watched Columbia heading for the stars.

People were shouting and clapping. What is it about these launches that brings such a reaction from some of us? Why were people clapping when no one at NASA or in the Columbia could hear them? Why was I trembling and so terribly happy? We shouted again when Columbia appeared above the second layer of clouds after we thought it had disappeared.

I'm sure there were people who thought the launch was just another interesting sight for tourists to see, but I noticed most of the people there were grinning from ear to ear. In a strange way, I think Americans feel a kind of personal triumph when the shuttle leaves the earth.

I thought of the fiery ascent as a brilliant, determined streak of hope that thrusts itself away from all the shackles that bind mankind to Earth. The roar of the rockets as they lift off was like a thunderous "no" to all the tears and limitations that grind our courage to dust.

Maybe the Challenger disaster had to happen to remind us what a triumph each space trip represents.

As if to lighten such profound thoughts, teen-age Mireia cracked us up as we headed toward the car.

"It is like cooking a chicken for hours, and eating it up in two minutes," she said.

While we were laughing, I knew that none of us will ever forget those two minutes.