In 1986 I was watching NASA TV with the rest of the staff of the Morehead Planetarium when the Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off for the last time. As the full magnitude of the disaster sank in past the numbness and shock, I promised myself that I would do what I could to support the eventual resumption of shuttle flights. The only way I could think of to do that was to be present at the next launch. Perhaps my psychic encouragement could add a little lift to those big engines.

The process of getting the shuttles off the ground again was painfully long. It was 1988 before they were ready to fly. By then I was living in New York. Gaining admittance to the KSC press site was no picnic. I decided to disguise myself as a mild-mannered reporter. Calling the local newspaper, I offered to write a feature story about the launch if they would take the trouble to write to KSC and request press clearance for me. What follows is a version of the story I wrote.

RSS Rollout: The Rotating Service Structure (RSS) is scheduled to be opened the afternoon before the launch. Seen at close range, the RSS is an enormous tangle of pipes, struts, and more meaningful or attractive than an oil refinery. But the huge RSS has a trick that refineries can't match. Imperceptibly at first, it pivots open along a gigantic hinge. Discovery is gradually revealed. It is gleaming white, totally flawless, utterly pristine. Seen face on, the elegance of the entire Shuttle stack...Orbiter, External Tank, and Solid Rocket overpowering. This is a little-realized advantage of aerodynamic becomes a necessity, not a frivolous option.

Sunset: Hundreds of photographers, representatives of the world press corps, pile out of NASA buses. I, in my reporter disguise, am among them. Before us lies the narrow Mosquito Lagoon, bright with flashes of the setting sun, dotted with wading birds and waterfowl. Across the water, Discovery sits at Launch Pad 39-B. The sun's slanting descent is bringing it to a rendezvous with Discovery. It touches the horizon. Shutters click more frequently when flocks of wild birds pass in front of the waiting spacecraft. Their cries and the surf behind us provide the only other sounds. From this viewpoint, Kennedy Space Center looks primordial, untouched...except for the spacecraft silhouetted incongruously against the golden horizon.

Lights On: We are now face on to the Orbiter. The photographers are complaining; the yellow pinpoint lights in the RSS don't light Discovery well enough to shoot. With full darkness comes a dramatic improvement. As the sky fades to black, a NASA technician puts on a light show. One by one, as if to tantalize his audience, that hidden technician activates banks of enormous arc lamps. Soon Discovery is so awash in brilliant white light that it appears self-luminous. The Shuttle stack glows like a great cathedral. As a final tour-de-force, the technician cuts in great spotlights that stab upward around and beyond the launch pad, projecting, it seems, into infinity.

The Night Before: The KSC Press Site is a collection of unprepossessing structures about 3 miles from Pad 39-B. Here at least, NASA opts for utility in its buildings rather than ostentation. Tonight the site is transformed by the glamour of what is to come. Those awesome spotlights fan upward from the distant Shuttle like the tail of the greatest comet imaginable. The main beam passes overhead and persists all the way to the opposite horizon. It's the most impressive artificial lighting I've ever seen.

The Shuttle looks tiny from the Press Site. In fact, it has the same apparent size as the moon, about half a degree. You can cover it with a fingertip held at arm's length. But it exerts a commanding influence on everyone there. Beneath its plume of light, it compels the attention of even the most jaded.

I set up a small telescope. Tomorrow I'll use it to photograph Discovery's launch. Tonight I acquaint members of the press with targets for the future payloads of Discovery and her sisters. First the moon...a onetime goal we've abandoned for now. Then Mars, near its closest possible point to the Earth, destination for the future Mars Observer probe. Finally Jupiter, target of the Galileo probe which has languished unlaunched since the destruction of Challenger.

My accommodations at the Cape are Spartan yet evocative. I doze off in the back of my car, waking now and then to hunt down invading mosquitoes. The view makes it worth it. The huge floodlighted slab of the Vehicle Assembly Building looms nearby and reminds me where I am.

Launch Day: Discovery is ready, the astronauts are ready, I'm ready. But there's a hold. The problem is the's too good. Discovery's computers are programmed to deal with the winds of early Autumn, but today the high-altitude weather is more like that of a balmier Spring. NASA launches weather balloons and conducts analyses to see if the computers can deal with the conditions that actually prevail. Apparently they can. The count is resumed. The total delay is a little over an hour and a half.

Up till now, the attitude of the press has been fairly casual. Now the tension definitely begins to increase. A reporter from a Florida TV station tells me that the mood here is more businesslike than at many previous launches. Many of them remember all too well what they witnessed the last time they covered a Shuttle launch.

It's only when the count resumes at T minus 9 minutes that the enormity of what is about to happen sinks in for me. I double check the focus and readiness of my camera. My actions take on a dreamlike quality.

The count goes to the final seconds. The speakers announce main engine start, followed by SRB ignition. Discovery wastes no time. It flings itself off the pad, surging up on a pillar of fire from the SRBs. The color of those flames is a sun-gold of ravishing purity, something lost on television or in photographs.

The sound takes fifteen seconds to roll across the three miles. First comes the steady rushing noise of the Main Engines, followed by the much rougher and wilder roar of the SRBs.

The real cheers break out when Discovery goes beyond the stage that claimed Challenger and its crew of seven. Discovery's SRBs burn out and are discarded on schedule. The column of solid white smoke they leave behind ends cleanly, not in the mass of flame which marked the pyre of Challenger. Discovery is safely on its way.

The 36 frames in my camera are gone in an impossibly short time. I'm free to stare in awe at the golden fire that is departing so swiftly from this planet. It is like watching a giant rise up from the earth. In seconds it is beyond my vision. By the time I come back to myself, I find that six minutes have actually passed.

The sheer audacity of the men and women who create and ride in such a machine is perilously, and gloriously, close to hubris.

It's time to leave. The 30-hour drive from Endicott and the hassles associated with making this rendezvous are forgotten. It's only when I'm back on the road that the full impact of what's happened strikes home.

For some reason the local paper decided not to run my story, but I scarcely cared. I'd done what I had set out to do. Since then I've seen two other shuttle launches, all of them Discovery, oddly enough. Each time I was a little farther away. The second time I sat across the water in Titusville to watch a night launch. The third time I stepped out of my brother's house just south of Tampa and had a surprisingly clear view of the Discovery's launch about a hundred air miles away.

I have also seen a shuttle landing...and wouldn't you know it, it was Discovery again. When I lived in Southern California I was able to drive to Edwards AFB on short notice to hear the famous double sonic boom and see the orbiter settle to the runway, just a very few minutes after leaving orbit.

Following the loss of Columbia and her crew, the Shuttles seem like purposeless ghosts of a previous era on those rare occasions when they are launched. Soon the remaining orbiters will become museum pieces, and in all probability, American manned space flight will recede into history, like much else that was once good about our country.

Words and images copyright by Joe Bergeron.