By Katherine Ackerman
When we arrived at the launch's media viewing area around 2:30 AM, the press room resembled a party, albeit one with a geeky purpose. The contractor and NASA employees looked decently cheerful and fresh faced as they handed out pamphlets, stickers and colorful photos, and everyone chatted and laughed as they watched the live feed stream on the HDTVs. Three hours later, it looked more like the party was winding down. Reporters were dozing where they sat, trying to fulfill the eight hours that they certainly didn't get the night before. Everything seemed to be moving slowly, like the world was inching along on some warped time scale; to complete the feeling, the countdown clock was stuck on 20 minutes in a planned hold.
As time crawled forward, reporters, photographers, and journalists drew back some of their energy. We hit the nine minute mark, and though the clock stopped again in another planned hold, everyone seemed to be on a different plane of energy. It was a palpable change enhanced by the overhead passage of the International Space Station a little after six-everyone aimed their cameras upward to get a photo of the tiny but monumental white dot moving through the inky sky.
The clock ticked downward once more toward a 6:21 AM launch until at about fifteen seconds, everything started happening. There was a giant rush of air, an enormous flame, and-kaboom-blastoff! I'm torn between saying that it looked like the world was ending and that it looked like the world was being created anew. The entire thing looked and felt raw-the sky was completely illuminated with fire and smoke as Discovery was launched upwards, and while we watched that, shock waves rippled the air around us. As it passed below the horizon, people started packing up their tripods and equipment. There was no applause, but it felt like there should have been. Who would we have been applauding for, though? The astronauts? The scientists? Or, perhaps, for ourselves and all that man has accomplished.
Katherine Ackerman is a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax, Virginia.