I made the effort to watch the final launch of the space shuttle program this morning, as the Atlantis took to the skies one last time. While I'm forced to acknowledge the reality that 30 years is really a long time for a program of this kind to last, I'm still somewhat sad to see the shuttle go.
This is the space vehicle I grew up with. This is the ship that was popularized in the popular media of my childhood, and which inspired numerous toys for kids like me to drool over (not the least of which included Transformers such as Sky Lynx, Astrotrain, and Blast Off). No matter how cool the next generation of spacecraft may be (when they finally arrive), they can never recapture that time. Of course, they'll be the space vehicles that the children of tomorrow grow up with, and I'm sure that those children will develop similar emotional attachments.
When NASA celebrated the 40th anniversary of humanity's first moon landing a couple of years ago, I commented on the fact that the entirety of our experience with such landings was completed in just over three years. I still find that mind-boggling. I didn't fully appreciate at the time that NASA went the entire period after that last moon landing in 1972 until the first space shuttle launch without any space flight at all. When shuttle flights began in 1981, that was the first time any American space flight had launched in more than eight years! No wonder there was so much buzz about it at the time. It's undeniable that shuttle launches of recent years have come and gone with far less notice (the attention generated by the program's end notwithstanding). I doubt that children of today have had quite the same energy about space flight that my friends and I had. I expect that will change when NASA launches its next spacecraft (whenever that happens is currently somewhat up in the air, but it certainly won't take place for several years at this point), and everyone is talking about the new possibilities for human space exploration again.
Until then, we wait. In the meantime, the crew of the Atlantis still has some work to do. May God grant them success and safe landing.