GREENBELT -- It happened again. A NASA space shuttle lifted off from Cape Canaveral yesterday morning, and tears pooled in Bruce Schneck's eyes.
"Every time we fly, I well up," confessed Schneck, 52, a Baltimore native and Honeywell Technology Solutions employee who manages shuttle communications for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.
He wasn't the only one caught up in the emotion of yesterday's "return to flight." As workers directly involved in the launch focused on their monitors, others crowded a hallway to peer through the control room windows of the Flight Dynamics Facility, where engineers track the shuttle and make sure communications antennas around the world stay pointed at it.
The Goddard employees cheered, applauded and heaved a collective sigh of relief as the shuttle Discovery roared into orbit. The on-time liftoff ended nearly 2 1/2 years of introspection, rebuilding and rehearsal that followed the loss of the shuttle Columbia and its crew of seven on Feb. 1, 2003.
Watching large-screen TVs visible inside the room, the hallway rubberneckers cheered at liftoff and gazed, rapt, as NASA TV showed video images beamed back from the ascending spacecraft.
After Discovery reached orbit, those in the control room could pause and take stock.
"Very exciting, and I would say very satisfying. ... All the hard work everybody put in in the last 2 1/2 years paid off this morning," said Jim Cappellari, 73, a senior analyst in Goddard's Flight Dynamics Facility.
Cappellari has been working NASA missions since the Apollo program, including one other "return to flight" by Discovery in 1988 -- the first after the 1986 Challenger accident. Even so, he said, manned launches are never routine for those who help make them happen.
This one is especially critical, he said, for getting NASA back on track, for completion of the International Space Station and for meeting NASA's goal of returning astronauts to the moon. "It's an important flight," he said. "I don't think anybody would deny that."
It was a dream come true for Ryan Frigm, 24, a 2003 Bucknell University engineering graduate working his first shuttle launch as a mission analyst in the Flight Dynamics Facility.
The York, Pa., native, who was about 4 years old when Discovery flew its first mission, said he knew growing up that he wanted to get involved. He joined Goddard in January and has been rehearsing for yesterday's launch ever since. He was not disappointed.
"It was great. I love to see a launch go smoothly like that," he said after Discovery reached orbit. "We had no significant problems. ... I'm glad to see us back in play."
Cappellari and other senior analysts kept a close watch over several young engineers working their first mission. "They did very well. We're very pleased with their work," he said.
Yesterday's success was especially sweet for Schneck and his communications team, who work in Goddard's Network Integration Center, across the Greenbelt campus from Flight Dynamics.
Their job is to keep shuttle communications -- voice, data and video -- flowing smoothly as the spacecraft circles the globe. But there was a new twist this time, that rear-facing camera mounted on the shuttle's external fuel tank.
NASA ordered the camera so that flight safety officials could see whether any ice or foam insulation fell off the big tank and struck Discovery during its ascent. It was a suitcase-sized slab of insulation that punched a hole in Columbia's wing during its launch in January 2003 and doomed the shuttle and its crew during re-entry.
Schneck and his team had less than a year to order and install ground antennas and other gear needed in Florida and at Wallops Island, Va., to capture the video signal from Discovery during its climb and distribute it to everyone who needed to see it -- including television viewers.
"That video was absolutely beautiful," Schneck said. Immediately after liftoff, it showed the belly of the shuttle and the side of the external tank, with the Florida coastline dropping away below.
Later, TV viewers could see the shuttle's twin solid fuel boosters break away and begin their fall to the ocean. Then, after the shuttle's main engines shut down, the camera returned a striking view as the shuttle released the tank, drifted away with its maneuvering engines firing and continued its ascent to orbit.
The sight thrilled Schneck and his team. "Everybody was clapping; everybody was cheering," he said. "The network performed extremely well."
Three shifts of Goddard workers and contract employees will continue to work the flight of Discovery until its return to the Kennedy Space Center, now scheduled for Aug. 7.