NASA is a four letter word.
As I post this, the Space Shuttle Atlantis is lifting off for its final mission, the beginning of the ending of an era at NASA. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has, for more than 50 years, been the foundation of manned and unmanned spaceflight in the United States. With Shuttle's last mission, it experiences a pause as it shifts to more unmanned craft and more reliance on outside organizations and companies to fill the gap in manned spaceflight.
The gap had existed in the past. When the Apollo project ended after six moon landings, three space station crews, and a multi-national test project, there was a six year pause before Shuttle took its first flight. Three times in its history it stopped to re-evaluate itself after major accidents caused loss of life. Now, again, it pauses to find a new direction for itself and prepare for the next stage in manned spaceflight.
In many ways, space captured my imagination for much of my life. I don't remember much of the Apollo projects, and Skylab holds an interesting place in my heart. But I watched the first shuttle launch with excitement. I mourned the loss of two crews. I thrilled as I saw the space station being built. I continue to marvel at the photographs from Mars and galaxies beyond. It is difficult to watch this launch... to hear familiar instructions... to remember past missions. We once pinned all our dreams on Shuttle... it is time to move towards new dreams.
NASA certainly isn't gone. It still has an unmanned mission. It even continues to have a manned mission with its alliance with Russia on the space station project. And it continues to prepare for new manned flights with new launch vehicles in the future. It considers new missions beyond what we do, or even can do, today. And that is as it should be. NASA was never about the present - it was always about the future... about where we were going... and how best to get there.
"On the shoulders of the Space Shuttle, America will continue the dream."