The Final Frontier – STS 135 marks the end of an era.

8 07 2011

At 11.29 am Eastern Standard Time, Space Transportation System Atlantis lifted off from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral and headed for the inky blackness of space.

The final flight of the Space Shuttle, the last chance to watch one of humanity’s greatest achievements muscle its way into the sky and power towards a place in history.

Thirty years of making space exploration seem like the most normal thing on earth, thirty years of watching a familiar shape ascend and then return, gliding back down as if doing nothing more than fly from Boston to New York.

STS 135 is the final mission, the one that signifies a new direction for NASA and their dreams of conquering space beyond low-level orbit and the Moon.

The Space Shuttle has been retired and doesn’t get a gold watch but the admiration and gratitude of not just Americans – some of who incorrectly claimed ownership of the entire project when interviewed by CNN with the vapor trail still visible – but the entire World.

Watching it on television this morning, I felt some sadness as the countdown ticked down to zero, the engines ignited and this remarkable machine gracefully lifted off. Accelerating faster than a Jamaican sprinter, the shuttle “spread its’ wings one final time on its’ sentimental journey into history“, flexed its muscles and within minutes the on-board cameras were showing the delicate arc of the Earth as it interconnected with space.

To me the Space Shuttle has never been an “it”, more demonstration of what human beings can achieve when they put their minds to it, a machine that combines beauty and a practical work ethic with the glamor of reaching for the stars. In the world of man-made objects of desire, the Shuttle is the Superstar (although Concorde runs it pretty close).

And after thirty years, it is being decommissioned and shipped off to a museum.

President Obama has promised that there will be alternative ways of conquering space, that the return to a more conventional rocket system is not a step backward but a more cost-effective way of supplying the International Space Station and allowing commercial companies to start competing for the business of being a “space taxi”. NASA is not going to close the doors and walk away, there is still so much work to be done and there are other space programs being launched in other countries of the world.

America has been a leader in the field for many years, the demise of the Soviet Union left a competitive vacuum that may still be filled by either the European Space Agency or China but NASA was (and will probably remain) Number One.

And to stay at the top, you need continued investment.

That is the new world that we are now moving into and the last Shuttle mission is more than just a final farewell to a beloved (and iconic) machine – it is saying goodbye to the dreams of millions who thought that one day they would pilot a space-ship. Somehow the chance to sit on top of a big firework doesn’t seem the same as taking control of a multi-million dollar craft that you can land on a runway and still brush the space-dust off the wings.

With the last STS mission now underway, the glamor of pushing through the Final Frontier has returned to the imagination of those who create the worlds of Science Fiction.

Next stop, Warp Drive and Colonies on Mars.

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