07/28/2011 06:43 pm ET | Updated Sep 27, 2011

Over and Out, Above and Beyond: Is the Space Age Over Or Just Beginning?

Last week's end of the space shuttle era came with neither a bang nor a whimper, and no little sense of anti-climax. Did it mark the end of the Space Age? Or a new beginning?

I loved the space program. I grew up with it, thrilled to the early Mercury and Gemini missions of the '60s as a little boy, was transfixed by Apollo and the first landing on the Moon, made all the memorable by viewing it from the rather unearthly confines of Crater Lake in Oregon. The promise of the future never seemed brighter, or more filled with mystery. The Space Age seemed the exemplar of humanity's ability to reach for knowledge, to explore, to excel.

Atlantis came in for the final landing of the 30-year space shuttle program, just a minute past the scheduled 2:56 AM Pacific on July 21st at the Kennedy Space Center.

In time, of course, it had all become a matter of some routine. With the Cold War imperative of besting the Soviets to the Moon achieved, with serious problems here at home, it faded. Landing on the Moon was a great achievement, but the distance to the Moon, after all, is only ten times one round-trip of the Earth. The planets are much further away, the distance to the stars vaster still. The allure of outer space was replaced by the draw of cyberspace.

As I watched the last mission of Atlantis -- which I was able to netcast on my site, something utterly unimaginable in 1969 -- some of the old feeling came back, even though this 135th and final space shuttle voyage was essentially an extended cargo run for the International Space Station. But the vessel returned before dawn last Thursday, with relatively few seeing the end of an era. The originally planned touchdown on the 20th would have marked the 42nd anniversary of Apollo 11′s touchdown on the Moon, but this ending clearly shied away from that comparison.

Watching here in California, shortly before 3 AM, I saw Atlantis glide to a perfect landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Everyone said all the right things, as Houston's legendary Mission Control did its thing for the last time, the "Final Four" astronauts performed flawlessly, and the NASA crowd came together for wrap-up mission celebrations as the sun rose over Cape Canaveral.

But it seemed, with due respect, rather generic, with a cloudy future overhanging it all. For the first time in 50 years, there is no upcoming mission for Americans going into space. Hastily jump-starting the planned Mercury program in 1961 to follow the Soviets into space, the first rudimentary capsules were followed by the Gemini missions, then the Apollo missions to the Moon into the 1970s, followed by the damaged and short-lived Skylab space station, and finally the 30-year space shuttle program.

What's the next big mission involving Americans in space who aren't doing the latest stint on the International Space Station, courtesy of a ride on a Russian Soyuz craft or perhaps a private space company later in the decade? Well, it's a long ways off, sometime in the next decade.

The shuttle program had great accomplishments. It deployed the Hubble Space Telescope, played a critical role in building the International Space Station, carried out experiments and launched many satellites and interplanetary probes.

But two of the five craft in America's little space fleet were destroyed in gut-wrenching accidents, and the flights were nowhere near as cheap and frequent as originally advertised. Yet for all that, they became a matter of routine, leaching the sense of drama and discovery out of the space program. In the end, the shuttles flew around the planet. They didn't take us anywhere we hadn't already been.

As gridlocked politicians struggle to do the most basic things, and appallingly large segments of the country reject science, it's not surprising that things have the appearance of being adrift. After all, it's been a long time since anyone set a new course in space.

It was John F. Kennedy who set the course to the Moon in 1961, Richard Nixon who approved the space shuttle program in 1972.

Now Barack Obama says he is setting a new course. First to an asteroid in 2025, then to Mars sometime in the 2020s. But the plans aren't exactly set. Vast ambitions can become vague ambitions. And House Republicans want big cuts in space.

On July 20th, 1969, the first astronauts landed on the Moon.

Still, the course advocated by Obama -- who is a Trekkie, or, more accurately, Trekker -- would take Americans for the first time away from the very familiar confines of our planet and its satellite into deep space. Some wanted to go back to the Moon. But we've been there. The getting there entranced us. The being there did not.

According to a CNN poll, half of Americans say ending the shuttle program is bad for America; only a sixth say it's a good thing.

There's very big support for a new generation spacecraft to replace the shuttle and get back in the business of exploration. Men are more inclined in that direction, at upwards of 80%. But two-thirds of women want that as well.

More than seven in 10 Democrats, Republicans, and independents are in favor. However, this time around, most want private companies to take the lead rather than government, by a 54% to 38% margin.

Which seems in line with reality because -- at least while we wait for NASA to get its big deep space missions together -- we are headed into an era of wildcat space travel.

While NASA sends pilot-less probes to the Asteroid Belt and to Jupiter and relies on a partnership with Russia to get astronauts to the International Space Station, and fast-rising China ramps up its own space program, a new generation of space entrepreneurs get their big shot.

The last mission of Atlantis was to provided badly needed supplies to sustain the International Space Station well into next year. But between now and then, unmanned commercial cargo craft will take over the supply mission, including rockets from California's SpaceX.

Virginia's Orbital Sciences and others will launch satellites into orbit. Virgin Galactic, which unveiled its sub-orbital spaceplane in the California high desert at the end of 2009, is entering the space tourism business.

Many companies will vie to replace the Russians as the conveyors of astronauts to the International Space Station.

Just as the first robber barons helped open up the new frontier of the Old West, we may see a new generation of robber barons capitalizing on the opportunities of space. It was prefigured in science fiction, with Robert Heinlein's D.D. Harriman in The Man Who Sold the Moon over 60 years ago and, more recently, warp drive inventor Zefram Cochrane in the otherwise social democratic Star Trek: First Contact in 1996.

The Atlantis crew and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden spoke on the tarmac at the Kennedy Space Center after the final landing of the space shuttle. America will rely on Russia to carry its astronauts into orbit for the foreseeable future, though California's SpaceX, about to take on the space shuttle resupply mission, and other firms say they will have private spacecraft to do the job in a few years.

With a variety of private players, it promises to be a very interesting era. Though the accidents that plagued the early days of aviation could have even more devastating impacts in these still early days of space.

Of course, had we chosen differently, we could have much more advanced results already.

Once upon a time, we were to have gone to Mars by, well, a quarter century ago. But the Vietnam War was catastrophically expensive.

More recently, we've executed "Moon Shots" closer to home. In Iraq and now in Afghanistan. With the money we've spent on those adventures -- the first of which was utterly unnecessary, the latter of which is utterly unwise -- we could do a "moon shot" in energy or transportation, as well as space exploration.

Paths not taken.

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