Shuttle, hail and farewell

America's high-soaring space shuttle program draws to a finale in a few weeks. Thanks to weak national leadership and political gamesmanship, U.S. astronauts will now have to hitch a ride into space aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft. After 2015-or later-if all goes well, the Space-X "Dragon" space-capsule replacement will be ready to carry an American crew into Earth orbit. Unlike previous U.S. manned space missions, SpaceX, a private company, will bear the full responsibility of transporting NASA astronauts into space.

Despite the loss of two space shuttles and their crews in 1986 and 2003, the U.S. Space Transportation System provided the nation with numerous technological firsts-from first reusable spacecraft to largest crew-carrying spacecraft (seven). No matter, you can't rest on your laurels and neither can the nation. So, it's time to move on in space.

The space shuttle-which first flew in Earth-based drop tests in 1977-was always perceived by critics as a spaceship in search of a destination. You can blame that on post-Apollo government planning (or lack thereof).

Originally, NASA planned a Skylab-like space station to be tended by a fleet of manned and unmanned shuttle ferries. This orbiting platform would be a jumping off pad to the Moon, Mars and beyond. Instead, a drastically slashed post-Apollo NASA budget, following the costly Vietnam debacle, ended up with funding for only one crewed component-the space shuttle. Gone was a permanent space station. Thus, was delivered to the critics,a spacecraft with no place to go.

It really wasn't until the leadership and vision of President Clinton-which spurred the U.S.-Soviet Mir missions of the mid 1990s and the later building of the International Space Station (a project that originated with President Reagan as Space StationFreedom), that the shuttle showed its mettle as a unique orbital vehicle. But it was too little, too late, as far as most space advocates saw it.

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