It was a beautiful sight -- the shuttle Discovery riding a pillar of fire from the launch pad into orbit. The flawless liftoff was a tonic for NASA after being grounded for 32 months. It meant America was back in the space business and was a boost to national pride as well.

But even more than pride and technical achievement, the smooth launch lifted a burden from the American psyche. A collective sigh of relief seemed to follow Discovery's fiery climb into the sky.The launch drew more media attention than even the earliest manned-flights into space. And all over U.S., and in many other parts of the globe as well, people surrounded television sets to watch the spectacle.

That was only natural after the January 1986 explosion of the shuttle Challenger that killed all seven crew members after a flight of 73 seconds. Tension eased when Discovery routinely flew beyond that tragic milestone.

Among the most tense of the spectators undoubtedly were officials and engineers of Morton Thiokol, maker of the solid-fuel rockets that were blamed for the 1986 disaster. A sense of personal involvement probably was felt by most Utahns who watched the liftoff. The smooth performance was not only vindication of Thiokol's work, but was the surmounting of large psychological barrier as well.

A disaster this time, in all probability would have meant the end of the U.S. space program, at least for years to come. Now, everybody involved can roll up their sleeves and get the nation back into becoming the world leader in the conquest of space.

Congratulations are due to NASA administrator James C. Fletcher, the former Utahn called to rescue the agency from the Challenger disaster, on down to the last technician at the launch pad, as well as to Thiokol and all the other contractors who put everything they had on the line to make the flight a success.

Discovery still must complete its flight, including the always-hazardous re-entry and landing next Monday. But for now, America has once more broken free of what one poet called "the surly bonds of Earth."