The space shuttle Atlantis rolled to a stop shortly after 6 am Thursday at the Kennedy Space Centre, closing a chapter on one of the most far-reaching super-power confrontations in human history: the cold war space race.
That race was as much about international politics, about the control and mastery of space, a nuclear and technological confrontation with the Soviet Union, as it was about exploration and mystery. But when the first pictures floated back from the early Apollo missions, it was the Earth, in all its fragility and mystery, that snuck through sabre rattling. They say we went to the Moon, but we discovered Earth.
The decommission of Atlantis, and of the space shuttle, its service, and its legacy is only faintly heard today over famine in Somalia, economic meltdown in Europe, and midnight deficit deals in the United States itself. But the last flight of the shuttle is a metaphor for another time, when the U.S. galvanized its public, its genius, and its power around that singular goal of space flight. And then, walking on the moon. We went for glory and conquest, but in space we found humility. We went with bravado and quarrel, but became small and fragile.
There are plans for Orion, a conical ship destined for the Moon, asteroids, and Mars. The rocket, mind you, is an entirely unknown quantity. Plans are supposed to emerge by the end of the summer.
In the interim, NASA will rely on Russia to supply the International Space Station, and two commercial companies, the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation of Hawthorne, Calif., and the Orbital Sciences Corporation of Dulles, Va., to begin cargo flights next year. The invitation is out to the private sector to provide space transport services.
In what can't fail to seem iconic in these times of fiscal and moral austerity, private companies will pick up the burden of resupply and innovation. Exploring space might be a fading luxury for public America, a sagging superpower swamped with debt and indecision. Mystery seems a virtue for the solvent.
Yet, surely it is a eulogy worth writing, that the nation that split the atom and walked on the moon is buckling under over-consumption, internal fracture, and indebtedness. Finally, it may have to abandon the public transcendence of space itself: America's lesser demons robbing its treasury and sapping its will.
For Atlantis, NASA will now begin the work of transforming it into a museum piece. It will be mounted nearby at Kennedy's visitor center. One can't help but wonder if its broken hull will serve future generations with nostalgia for a time when the boundless audacity of public power galvanized one of the greatest nations in history around a public search for meaning, and origin, and transcendence. Would that our public—and our politics—be worthy of such a project again.