Space shuttle Discovery launched from Kennedy Space Center for the last time late Thursday afternoon, carrying supplies and a humanoid robot to the International Space Station. Cape Canaveral teemed with thousands of spectators cheering the shuttle’s final voyage. Thursday’s launch marked Discovery’s 39th journey into space.
Thursday’s launch also marked the beginning of the end of American space travel for the foreseeable future. NASA is retiring the current shuttle program following the proposed shuttle Atlantis mission, probably in June. The shuttle program’s retirement means that for the first time in nearly 60 years, the United States will not have a manned spacecraft available for launch.
Under the Bush Administration, NASA started the Constellation program to replace the aging shuttle program. However, in October 2010, President Obama signed into law NASA’s 2011 budget, which excluded the Constellation program from receiving funding. This ended the program and American hopes for a speedy return to space.
In the past 60 years, the United States has struggled with many issues . The American public divided on Vietnam, came together for the first Gulf War, and has divided once more on issues ranging from the second Gulf War to the economy. However, the space program brought all Americans together and gave them something to jointly identify with. A unified nation watched in awe as Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969, gasped in horror as the Challenger exploded after liftoff, marveled as the Hubble telescope gave us images of outer space beyond our dreams, and grieved after watching shuttle Columbia tear apart reentering Earth’s atmosphere in 2003.
The space program has long been an institution that represented the greatness of American technology, drive, and the desire to succeed. When NASA faltered, America patted them on the back and encouraged them to move on and keep going. In fact, after both the Challenger and Columbia disasters, it was Discovery that kick-started the shuttle program again. America identified with the shuttle program because it instilled in all of us a sense of wonder. The American space program stood head and shoulders above other space programs for years. Russia did all it could to match NASA, but still lagged behind. Europe and Japan also failed to measure up to the standard NASA set. The shuttle program symbolized American dominance.
Now the shuttle program is being retired, and NASA is faced with an uncertain future. In order for NASA astronauts to continue missions in space, they will have to ride on foreign rockets. They have to depend on foreign technology and cooperate with other space programs like they never have before. America will no longer be able to identify itself as the leader in space exploration. Americans have already had their pride stricken by large unemployment rates and mounting debt, and now a symbol of American hope is going away.
There may be hope in the future. The same law that President Obama signed ending funding for the Constellation program paved the way for manned missions to an asteroid by the year 2025 and to Mars by the mid-2030s. Still, even though the space program is not dead, it lost something when Discovery launched for the last time Thursday. When Endeavour and Atlantis lift off for the last time this year, it will lose even more. It signals the end of the era of wonder for the American space program.