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An era winding down

I and 120,000 other people watched online as the Discovery landed for the last time today.

The shuttle program is the space program I grew up with, for better and worse. I was ten when the Columbia went up for the first time in April 1981. I sat in math class and watched the Challenger explode on the television, over and over and over. I pored over the Space Shuttle Operator’s Manual and dreamed of going up myself.

I never expected the shuttle program to last so long, that we wouldn’t have moved on to better things in the thirty years since that first launch. Shuttle launches became almost routine, something that happened every now and then, until the Columbia reminded us that heading into space is never routine, never entirely safe.

Now Discovery is down for good. Endeavour is scheduled to launch for the last time in April, and Atlantis will make her last flight in June, the 135th shuttle flight.

With the end of the shuttle program, and the cancellation of the Constellation program last year, the US is without a manned space program: a stunning lack of vision. We can watch video from the shuttle cockpit real-time as it lands, but we cannot send people into orbit, let alone to the Moon or Mars. What are the kids now going to watch in awe? What great scientific enterprise will unite the country? What will we cheer, and mourn?

Forget about the flying cars. Where’s my space program?