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The time was "T plus 2 minutes" and counting as the solid rocket boosters on the space shuttle Discovery prepared to separate and America finally began to let go of that horrible moment 32 months ago.

In a snapshot scene probably found in any American community this morning, about 60 eighth-graders sat in semicircles around the television set in Susan Eastmer's science classroom at the Waterfront Elementary School -- hoping that history wouldn't repeat itself.

So the resulting exhilaration of the successful launch was registered in sighs of relief, not in shouts of joy.

"It was like going down a roller coaster," Chance Sweat, 13, said of the countdown to lift-off. "My heart was beating real fast. I'm just happy that it didn't explode."

"I'm just glad that we can finally go up in space again," added Christy Nolan, 13. "We've been out of it so long. Now I think we can do more. This is what we needed to build our confidence back up."

Mrs. Eastmer's eighth-graders are only 13 or 14 years old, but they have no trouble remembering Jan. 28, 1986, when as fifth-graders, most of them saw the Challenger explosion that claimed seven lives and set back the U.S. space program for a couple of years.

As they sat in class before today's delayed launch, the eighth-graders understood the significance of the launch, in terms of human lives, future careers and the effects on the space program.

"If it did blow up again, it would be hard to build another shuttle," Chance said before liftoff.

And classmate Dan Rodriguez, 14, added, "There wouldn't be any more space shuttles for about 20 years. It's do or die for NASA."

Bright teen-agers with an interest in science also look at the space program as a possible career option.

"I wanted to be an astronaut, and I wanted to go into space, but when I saw that (1986 explosion), I changed my mind," said Jamie Swanson, 13. "I didn't want to get blown up."

But he was confident about today's launch, pointing out that the technology has improved and that more attention has been paid to safety factors like escape hatches.

The students' concerns about safety were echoed by Mrs. Eastmer.

"I think we had taken the space program for granted, (believing) that it would always work," she said before the launch. "I think after the tragedy of the Challenger, we realized we are vulnerable. We have to pay closer attention to the safety factors."

Her science students study the space program from several different angles. Students talked about concepts like force, motion and acceleration, while also viewing the space program in the contexts of current events and career opportunities.

Students were asked how they would feel if they were in the shuttle waiting for lift-off.

"I would be shaking and nervous, but I would study my facts to make sure I got up in space and came back," said Tamika Whetstone, 13. "I'd also make sure all the equipment was right and we were in radio contact."

Less than five minutes before launch, Tamika admitted she was a little nervous.

"I feel like I'm about to go up," she said.

As they looked into the future, these students seemed to exhibit boundless confidence in the potential of the space program.

Dan said the structure of the shuttles would change in the next 20 years, allowing the flights to go longer, farther and safer.

"It's going to be like a space 747 taking people from one planet to another," Chance added.

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