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Goodbye, space shuttle.

The space shuttle Atlantis is set to make its final trip into orbit soon, depending on whether it can get a break in the weather Friday or needs to delay liftoff into the weekend. When the shuttle comes back, that's it -- that's all she wrote. America's ability to do manned spaceflight going forward becomes a big question mark, and Atlantis and its siblings literally will become museum pieces, symbols of an earlier era. There'a a school of thought that the demise of the shuttle program is emblematic of America in the 21st century -- the defense commentator Loren Thompson wrote this:

As befits an administration run by technocrats, there seems to be little grasp at the White House of what the Space Shuttle's demise means in symbolic terms. For many Americans, and other observers around the world, it is further evidence of America's decline. The fact that the shuttle was always destined to retire someday is beside the point, because the Obama Administration has no real plan for what will happen next in the manned spaceflight program. So workers are being laid off by the thousands, the industrial base supporting human spaceflight is hollowing out, and astronauts are resigning to pursue more promising careers. In other words, the long-cherished dream that mankind might have a future in the cosmos is slipping away, at least as far as America's role is concerned.
You've heard all the other space lamentations before, too: What about tomorrow's equivalents of Velcro and Tang, and the Fisher Space Pen?  And with no human spaceflight, America's doe-eyed children won't be inspired to become rocket scientists, and so they won't focus on their studies and they'll end up becoming crack dealers!  And on and on -- let's try to blink through the tears for a moment and take a clearer look at this.

When viewed in aggregate, over its history, the space shuttle program was a "magnificent failure," as one astronaut told the AP's Seth Borenstein: It gave the U.S. three decades of service, but cost more than double what NASA promised, claimed the lives of 14 astronauts and two spacecraft, and it failed to deliver on its most basic premise: Cheap, predictable, reliable transport of people and stuff into space. The original vision for the shuttle was for it to fly some 50 times a year, but as Borenstein writes, NASA never managed more than nine per year. And the "value" of that orbital pickup truck? Get a load of this -- per Borenstein:

The nation spent more on the space shuttle than the combined cost of soaring to the moon, creating the atom bomb, and digging the Panama Canal, according to an analysis by The Associated Press using figures from NASA and the Smithsonian Institution and adjusting for inflation.
There's no question that the space shuttle program was important to the United States, but as a symbol, it's as much an icon of what's frustrating about government programs as of "mankind's future in the cosmos."
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