On Friday, the last American space shuttle -- Atlantis -- is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral.
It will mark the end of an era that began with Alan Shepard's flight of Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961. Flying the tiny, one-man Mercury space capsule, Shepard was the second human being in space and the first American. It launched the "space race" with the Russian to be the first to land a human on the moon and return them to earth, a race won by America on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first set foot on the moon. Two-and-a-half years later, in mid-December 1972, Gene Cernan became the last of a dozen men to stand on the moon after six successful Apollo missions. He and the crew of Apollo 17 were also the last human beings to venture beyond earth orbit.
It marked the high water mark of the American manned space program.
The space shuttle eventually replaced Apollo and contributed significantly to our knowledge of outer space. More than 200 Americans have now logged time in space.
But when Atlantis returns to earth after its final mission, the era of manned space flight for America will end-- for a long time. We'll be hitching rides with the Russians to get into outer space. We'll watch as China expands its manned space program, whose ultimate goal is to establish a base on the moon. Japan, India and Iran are all working on manned space mission.
Our next launch is a long ways away. The vision of exploring the "high frontier" that was launched by President Kennedy, has faded. A lack of vision -- and finances -- has ended our first era as a space-faring nation. And the mantle of the spirit of exploration, which has been such a hallmark of American history, will be taken up by others.
Today, we're asking private industry to pick up the slack, and in the long run, that may be the best alternative. But when Atlantis lands, we'll have lost something special. The initiative, and the capability, to send men and women into outer space, to explore the cosmos, will have passed out of our hands.
It is a sad symbol, and a commentary, on the state of this nation's fading ability to envision greatness.