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One more time

At the time of writing the last flight of a space shuttle is still a go. On July 8th the shuttle Atlantis will blast into the sky on a 12-day mission to the International Space Station.

We have long become used to shuttle flights. Well, stand by for a big step backwards. For as long as most living Americans can remember, the news cycle has included periodic reports of rockets blasting off from Cape Canaveral carrying men and women into earth orbit and beyond.

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In the early years, astronauts were home grown, but in more recent times they have hailed from a number of nations. Space exploration has had an interesting effect in that rivalries that might be all too evident on earth tend to fade away in the vacuum just a few score miles above our planet.

What will be fading away most noticeably now is the presence of U.S. orbiters and no one can really say for sure how long this absence is going to last because there is a very large question mark right now over future manned space flight, be it of the earth orbit variety or missions to the moon or Mars.

True, there are moves intended to launch privately funded space missions. But if this happens it is hard to imagine folks becoming excited over a company in the way they once did over their country.

Human space exploration never became so routine that it went unreported. This was certainly the case during the 30-year history of shuttle flights. In considerable part, the air of routine was pushed aside by tragedy, that being the loss of two shuttles, Challenger and Columbia.

And no matter how close to seeming routine a shuttle flight became, we never, and thankfully, completely lost that sense of wonder as the shuttle's great rockets belched flame and smoke and the earth around the launch pad shook just before it was left behind.

It is to be hoped that the absence of a U.S. manned program will never become so routine that space, earthly and cosmic, is devoid of commentary on that same absence, most of the commentary tinged with words of regret.

And these are words of regret: We are poised on the threshold of less exciting times, whether we notice it or not.