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End of shuttle era is sad day for America

Published 8:00am Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Today marks the 42nd anniversary of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the surface of the moon, fulfilling the goal of the legendary Apollo program.

It was a moment eight years in the making. In May of 1961 President John F. Kennedy gave the famous speech in which he challenged the nation to put forth the effort to place a man on the surface of the moon before the end of the decade.

It was an era that highlighted the best of American ingenuity and determination.

The United States was not the first nation to send a satellite into space, nor was it the first nation to send a man into space. In fact, for most of the space race against the Soviet Union the United States had to settle for finishing second.

But in the ultimate goal – landing a man on another heavenly body and returning him safely to Earth — the United State prevailed. It is a feat that still has not been matched by another nation.

Kennedy’s speech in 1961 transitioned the American space program from a small group of scientists and engineers into a source of national pride.

Through the years NASA has shifted among programs, transitioning from the Mercury program into Gemini then into Apollo and eventually into the shuttle program.

Thursday the shuttle era will come to an end when Atlantis lands, bringing a close to 30 years of shuttle missions. During that time five shuttles have carried 355 astronauts into space.

I grew up in the 1980s and watched with fascination when shuttles launched. Although I had not started school yet, the idea of flying into space captivated my attention.

I was in kindergarten when the Challenger disaster happened. I remember watching television when I got home as all of the adults tried to make sense of what happened.

Over the years I remained interested in space, but thought I had outgrown my personal attachment to the space program. Then the Columbia disaster happened and I was in shock for several days.

When President Barack Obama announced he was slashing funding to NASA and ending the shuttle program I was even more shocked.

For the first time since the space race began, the United States is left with neither a way to send astronauts to space or a program in the works for a new space vehicle.

The United States will now turn to the private sector to continue the development of space vehicles. Americans are ingenious and will eventually develop commercially successful space flight, but in the midst of a recession it does not look like that will be a priority.

Americans have a history of conquering the vertical challenge of flight. The Wright brothers began the legacy at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Armstrong continued that legacy at Tranquility Base 42 years ago.

Now the United States will have to rent space on a Russian spaceship to send an astronaut to the International Space Station.

I wonder what Kennedy would say about that development.

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