For my 12th birthday in 1986, my grandmother sent me a card covered in people doing grown-up jobs — fireman, policeman, doctor, teacher, and astronaut. Inside, the card informed me that I could grow up to be anything I wanted to be. A few short months after the Challenger disaster, Grammie had crossed off the astronaut and written, “Except this one.”

Despite all that the Shuttle has accomplished in the intervening 25 years, America’s relationship with the space program has never been the same, and human space flight at NASA has merely hobbled along — at least compared to the giant leaps taken in the 60’s and early 70’s. I may still believe that our 43rd president was the worst in our history, but one thing he did right was to set NASA’s sights beyond low earth orbit again, to the Moon and Mars.

The launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis on its final mission today marks the beginning of a strange gap in America’s history of human space flight.

The Orion/Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle is still under development, as are the commercial launch vehicles designed to take astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station. Until these new systems come online, NASA astronauts must hitch rides aboard spacecraft built and launched by other countries. Perhaps we’re witnessing the birth of a new, more cooperative era, but it feels strange that NASA is no longer self-reliant.

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