“Atlantis” lifts off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39A. ©NASA/Bill Ingalls

“STS-135: the Final Mission.” Sounds like the title of a new Star Trek film, doesn’t it? In reality, it’s the phrase denoting the end of our nation’s space shuttle program.

When Atlantis lifted off from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on July 8, 2011, it marked the final flight of such spacecraft over a 30-year span. STS-135 is a 12-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS), carrying a crew of four and the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module, a unit packed with supplies and spare parts for the station.

If you grew up anytime in the 1960s or 1970s, adventures in space are part of your being. Through the Gemini, Apollo and space shuttle missions, you came to recognize names such as John Glenn and Neil Armstrong, pasted up posters of waving astronauts in space suits and witnessed “splashdowns” on TV. You probably had a mobile of the universe dangling above your bed; a battery-powered planetarium stashed on a shelf; plastic, reflective stars glued to your ceiling that “lit up” when the lights were turned off; or had a pair of pajamas with swirling planets printed on them.

U.S. space flights fueled our childhood dreams—who didn’t want to become an astronaut?—and turned our wildest thoughts to the worlds above.

If we now become mere hitchhikers on Russian craft, what happens to our collective dreams of exploring the “final frontier”? Is the end of the space shuttle program a signal that America is becoming less adventurous?

Sweet “wheels”

The Hubble Space Telescope allows us to look at objects whose light takes us back to the beginnings of the universe. ©NASA, ESA, A. Nota (ESA/STScI), et al.

Our generation is unlikely to see the United States have anything to match the capabilities of the space shuttle ever again. For three decades, it was the fastest winged vehicle ever to fly: it has an orbital velocity of 17,500 mph, or 10 times the speed of a high-powered rifle bullet. It is the only winged craft to reach orbit and the only reusable space-launch-and-landing vehicle.

The shuttle can carry cargoes of ponderous weight and dimensions. It has taken into space more than half the mass of all payloads launched by all nations since Sputnik in 1957—more than 3,450,143 pounds. Even more amazing may be its ability to return payloads from space. It has brought back from orbit more than 97 percent of all mass returned to Earth, a total of 225,574 pounds (through STS-132). It has sent up 802 crew (including the 14 lost on Challenger and Columbia).

Atlantis’s final flight will conclude an amazing bout of exploration, which built an International Space Station and taught humans how to live, work and thrive in space. Space shuttles took up and repeatedly upgraded and repaired the Hubble Space Telescope, an instrument that provides us with a look at objects so distant that viewing their light takes us back in time to the beginnings of the universe.

Starry skies—such as this one over Old Faithful—are the fuel of dreams. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Hitchin’ a ride

Unfortunately—for the time being, anyway—Russia will be the only game in town as far as transportation between the Earth and the International Space Station. Last March, NASA and its Russian counterpart signed a new $753 million modification to its current ISS transportation deal. We secured six seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft for launch in 2014 and six more the following year, along with the return of both crews—at a cost of almost $63 million per seat. The new agreement is meant to bridge the gap between the end of the old contract in 2014 and the expected emergence of a homegrown, commercial space transportation system sometime in the middle of the decade.

After its final mission, Atlantis will return to Kennedy Space Center, where it will end up on permanent display; just another relic of a golden age of adventure.

Some say that Americans won’t long tolerate a U.S. space program dependent on Russian rockets, and that alone might rekindle an interest in bigger budgets for space exploration and more daring missions. The optimistic hope is that retiring the space shuttle program will free up NASA to focus on other adventures: heavier vehicles capable of leaving orbit and perhaps landing humans on Mars.

Now that’s what I call “rocket fuel” for childhood dreams—of the adventurous sort.

Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,

Candy