According to New York Magazine's Dan P. Lee, the real space age will begin next year when a spaceport in the middle of New Mexico, home to rocket planes that can take you to space for a meagre $200,000, will open.
Very far away, still sheathed in its massive launch-apparatus exoskeleton, one could make out Launchpad 39A, site of the historic Apollo 11 moonwalking blastoff, where Atlantis had also taken off to orbit the Earth, once more and finally, in 2011, marking the last in NASAs 30-year-old shuttle program. The other surviving orbiters, Discovery and Endeavor, had already completed their extraordinary processionals to museums in northern Virginia and Los Angeles (the latter requiring hundreds of trees cut and roadways reconfigured to accommodate its size). A throng of personnel was on hand, those who had built and maintained and flown her, including some of the 7,000 whose jobs were ending with the program. With signs and T-shirts that read WE LOVE YOU ATLANTIS and THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES and WE MADE HISTORY, they fell in behind her. Many wiped away tears as she crept along at two miles an hour, past the dense, still swampland that had, many times before, exploded along with her, the alligators and pigs and birds flushing at her ignition, the fish heaving themselves from the water, the light from the trail of fire flashing from their scales.
Now the procession was funereal. For NASAs public-relations machine, desperate to engage Americans notoriously fickle interest, it would amount to an odd victory: Stories about Atlantiss retirement appeared in media outlets across the globe, all written as obituaries. The events of the following evening were equally bleak: A formal dinner at the nearby Radisson commemorating the mission of Apollo 17, whose lunar module had closed its hatch 40 years earlier and ferried the last man back from the moon. In attendance were ten surviving Apollo astronauts, an extraordinary group to say the least, the only men to have traveled to the moon, now gray-haired or bald. Their fears for the nations space future were well aired; many of themincluding the famously reticent Neil Armstrong, whose recent death had cast a significant pallhad written letters to President Obama saying his space policy portended the nations long downhill slide to mediocrity. Just as China rushes to land on the moon by the end of this decade, the astronauts noted ruefully, the U.S. is now essentially vehicleless. For a taxpayer-funded fare of almost $71 million per seat, American astronauts are now taxied to the International Space Station by their former archenemies, the Russians, aboard the old, reliable Soyuz rockets against which NASA once raced. The delivery of cargo is now outsourced to private companies. In a tear-stained column titled In an Earthbound Era, Heaven Has to Wait, the Timess Frank Bruni said that for Americans already profoundly doubtful and shaken, the shuttles end carries the force of cruel metaphor, coming at a time when limits are all we talk about. When we have no stars in our eyes.
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