End of an Era For America’s Space Program
There was stark symbolism in the night time landing of the space shuttle Atlantis early today in Florida. As Atlantis came down in the darkness, ending 30 years of shuttle missions, the entire American space program also went into the dark. No one can say for sure when the sun will rise on it again.
Atlantis made a perfect landing as dawn broke today, gliding down on to the tarmac at the Kennedy Space Center. It was the 135th mission for the shuttle fleet, which has covered an astonishing 542 million miles and circled the Earth 21,150 times.
As Commander Christopher Ferguson eased Atlantis on to the runway, he radioed:
"Mission complete, Houston."
"'Job well done, America" replied Mission Control.
It will be three to five years at best before Americans are again launched into space from U.S. soil, with private companies gearing up to seize the Earth-to-orbit-and-back baton from Nasa.
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The long-term future for American space exploration is just as hazy, a huge concern for many at Nasa and all those losing their jobs because of the end of the shuttle program.
Asteroids and Mars are the tentative destinations of choice, yet Nasa has yet to settle on a rocket design to get astronauts there.