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Godspeed, Shuttle: The Atlantis Mission and What Comes Next

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Note: This has nothing to do with sports. --ed.

We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God." --Ronald Reagan, Jan. 28, 1986

When I was growing up in Huntsville, Alabama, one of my childhood dreams was to be an astronaut. Sure, that's probably true of a lot of children -- but it somehow seemed more real in Huntsville, where NASA was one of the prime industries and rocket science essentially built the town. (In 1950, the year Wehrner von Braun moved his rocket operations from Fort Bliss, Texas, to Huntsville the population was 16,437. By 1960, the city had grown to 72,365, and ten years later, its population was 137,802.)

While the dreams of being an astronaut are gone, my interest in the space program has never gone away. So its with more than a little sadness that I will watch today, at 11:26 a.m. (weather permitting), as Atlantis slips the surly bonds one last time, as its astronauts prepare to become the last men and women to touch the face of God on one of the most elegant and powerful vehicles ever created by men. By Americans.

I don't really blame anyone involved in the demise of the space shuttle program, largely because there have been too many mistakes by too many people to lay the blame at anyone's doorstep. There's NASA, which became fat and lazy on its early successes and forgot that one of its core missions has always been to keep the American people excited about space. There was President George W. Bush, who was either ignorant of or indifferent to the idea that the one thing harder than killing a government program is reviving one, and decided to scrap the shuttle program years before the Constellation program would be ready to go. There is Congress, which never got behind Bush's program and doesn't seem to have any ideas of its own. And there is President Barack Obama, who fumbled the inevitable mercy killing of Constellation and has left everyone deeply cynical and skeptical about what comes next.

The plan post-Constellation is to hitch rides with the Russians and private companies until we develop a plan for an interplanetary vehicle of some kind. (von Braun was convinced he could have us to Mars in the 1980s.) The first group is one that we spent the better part of 50 years trying to beat into space and the second has very little experience in actually doing the work.

But it seems a little bit out of place now to discuss all that. The decision has been made, and the only thing left to do is fear the question that's coming. Having slipped the surly bonds of earth, will we allow ourselves to be tied down again?

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Because the debate is coming. Whether it's because of the current argument over the deficit or a future scuffle over the meaning of government or just because of the inevitable cost overruns that come whenever any human organization tries to do something no human organization has ever done before, there will be those who challenge the need to return to space. There were those who challenged it even before the Columbia disaster in 2003, and those who will continue to argue that there's no real reason for Americans, or at least the American government, to return to space.

From a dollars and cents proposal, I suppose, they're right. There's certainly not a concrete need to return to space. But when you look at America and who we are, when you look at the source of our national greatness, there is a need to return to space. And an urgent need to do it as quickly as possible. And to do it as a nation.

For whatever reason, we seem to have lost that ideal that there are certain things we do together, because we are Americans and because they need to be done. Our forefathers understood the need for exploration, and for that exploration to be an American undertaking. It wasn't a private company that paid for Lewis and Clark's expedition, after all; it was the government.

And that was the spirit that lead to April 12, 1981, when Columbia lifted off for the first time and began the space shuttle era. Sure, there are some research reasons for the space shuttle program, and other justifications that can be dreamed up for manned space flight. But the most important reason is that exploration is who we are as a people. From the days when the Vikings and Christoper Columbus set sail, to that July evening when the first man set foot on the moon, we have always explored whatever is next. We Americans are explorers; as a nation, it's the closest thing we have to a soul.

You can't put a price tag on that. You can't weigh it in a cost-benefit analysis. Because when you lose that purpose, when you lose the call to greatness that has helped build your nation, you can't get it back.

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So I'm a little bit worried today about what happens next. Not pessimistic -- space inspires optimism for those who are transfixed by it, those who want to reach the next planet and then the next star and then the next solar system. It's one of the reasons that President Reagan's speech from 25 years ago still resonates today. For an elegy to fallen countrymen, it is remarkably and honestly optimistic.

We've grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we've only just begun. We're still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.

And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle's takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them.

The question we now face -- as a people -- is whether we will continue to follow them. Because there's still a future to be found, and it still will not belong to the fainthearted or those who lack imagination and purpose and pride. Americans have always seized the future before; will we seize it now?

It has been 30 years since Columbia's first launch, when the shuttle first left a nation brimming with optimism and carried those hopes for a bright future into orbit. And despite the optimism that space inspires, it's hard to shake the feeling that on July 20, Atlantis will return to a far different nation.