Discovery and seven astronauts blasted into orbit Tuesday on America's first manned space shot since the 2003 Columbia disaster, ending a painful, 2 1/2-year shutdown devoted to making the shuttle less risky and NASA more safety-conscious.
At stake were not only the lives of the astronauts, but also America's pride in its technological prowess, the fate of the U.S. space program and the future of space exploration itself.
"Our long wait may be over. So on behalf of the many millions of people who believe so deeply in what we do, good luck, Godspeed — and have a little fun up there," launch director Mike Leinbach told the astronauts just before liftoff.
NASA's chief acknowledged a lot is riding on the flight: the shuttle program, the space station program, President Bush's plan to send astronauts back to the moon and on to Mars — and seven lives.
"It's about hope, it's about imagination, it's about the future, and when you take away a great space program, you take away a lot of people's future," Griffin told the AP. "What's riding on this flight is people's hope for the future."
"We're really happy to see that there's been a safe launch," said astronaut David Wolf, who watched from the ground. But he added: "We still have the orbital phase and re-entry, of course. Really the mission has just begun — let's not forget that."
Faced with so many uncertainties, the liftoff was a relatively solemn affair. NASA did not plan to hold the usual post-launch party.