Yesterday, the space shuttle Discovery landed on Earth for the final time in its 27-year long career. On Monday, it has been reported that actor William Shatner gave the crew their final mission wake up call:
"These have been the voyages of the space shuttle Discovery, Her 30-year mission: To seek out new science. To build new outposts. To bring nations together on the final frontier. To boldly go, and do, what no spacecraft has done before."
Discovery, which has been taking astronauts into space since before I was even conceived, is expected to be donated to the Smithsonian Institute's National Air and Space Museum following a decontamination procedure. It will replace the space shuttle Enterprise, which will likely go on loan to other museums.
The United States manned space program is not completely over yet, though. The space shuttles Endeavor and Atlantis still have one mission each before they are retired later this summer. And plans to launch the Orion spacecraft (originally proposed by President George W. Bush in 2004) are still ongoing, even though a manned flight to the moon isn't expected until 2019 at the earliest due to delays and budget difficulties. But by the end of this summer, manned space flights by NASA will be on indefinite hiatus until a new type of spacecraft can be created and tested.
Orion is one such vessel, but British researchers recently revealed a new, reuseable space "plane" called Skylon that uses a Hydrogen rocket that will supposedly allow it to autonomously take-off, reach outer orbit, and land - all without the use of an expensive, disposable, secondary rocket. This is an exciting proposition, as it could lead to cheap and easy space flight, as well as the potential for space tourism! But Skylon isn't the first vehicle that has promised to usher in an era of space tourism, so I wouldn't hold my breath on it if I were you.
In the meantime, the loss of the United State's manned space flight program (even if it is temporary) is a huge disappointment for me. It could mark the end of a Golden Age of scientific discovery and progress that started (ironically enough) with the invention of the atomic bomb. I hope that the days of children aspiring to become astronauts does not end with the retirement of NASA's space shuttle fleet.
Thank you, to the crew of the Discovery and all the fine folks at NASA for inspiring a generation of people with your curiosity and courage. I look forward to a bright future of further manned space exploration to the Moon, Mars, and beyond, and hope that you all will continue to inspire the youth of this world to boldly go where no one has gone before.