Hugh Harris, one of the old hands around the Kennedy Space Center, was asked to resolve a problem for a novice reporter treading the space beat for the Discovery launch.

"We'll work it in real time," Harris said. The reporter looked puzzled. Heck, in the old days everyone would have known he meant "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."It's all so different now.

The veteran space reporters, the ones who covered the Vanguard missions in the early days and grew old writing about the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Skylab flights, came back at the start of the shuttle program in 1981 for this new era of ships launched like rockets, orbiting like satellites, and returning like airplanes.

But public interest faded, shuttle launches stopped being a big deal, and when Challenger blew up on that freezing day in 1986, the journalists at the launch site could be counted in the hundreds. Television networks had long stopped watching.

This is 1988 and the space program has taken its lumps, the Russians got ahead, and things are pulsing again. There is a shuttle on the pad, the hotels are full, and the excitement has returned to the Cape.

It's a different kind of excitement. More subdued, a little apprehensive. The memory of that awful fireball in the sky is still too fresh, and nobody thinks of space flight any more as routine.

There's a new crowd here, some people who weren't even born when Alan Shepard took his little hop down the Atlantic and who wouldn't know an EVA from MTV, for gosh sakes.

There are people in Cocoa Beach now who couldn't name the Seven Original Astronauts if their lives depended on it, who don't remember when the Starlight Motel was a hangout for "America's Heroes - Our Astronauts."

These are folks who think of Sesame Street when you talk about "The Bird" and who ask such questions as "Why is the fuel tank pointed on top?" (Answer: For the same reason that automobiles are not shaped like cubes.)

"More than half to two-thirds of the people never have been here, they don't know what they're hearing or where to go," Harris, who has been running the NASA newsroom, it seems, forever, said of the new crop of reporters who got the space assignment for this one.

You can spot them easily, grabbing every piece of paper put out on the newsroom counter by a beefed-up corps of NASA spokesmen and women. And don't think the space agency, which has taken a battering since Challenger, isn't taking advantage of this opportunity to shine.

It has spruced up its auditorium to get rid of the tacky backgrounds that used to be the hallmark of news conferences; it's got TV lights and a fancy modernistic logo and representatives who will do standups and speak for the agency whenever they are asked. And canny old NASA is sneaking in briefings about every program on its drawing boards, and even bringing in experts who don't speak in acronyms.

Ask any of the old-timers, who reminisce about the Apollo 12 launch struck by lightning in the rain, what is different and they'll say the people.

The look and the feel of the place is different, less adventurous somehow.

Sure, there are a few signs in the towns around: "Go Discovery," "Good Luck, Discovery Crew." And, yes, the Chamber of Commerce has somehow made green ribbons the symbol of upward and onward.

But none of the fever of the 1960s.