As a kid, I lived through several turning points for America, events that had a real impact on history: the beginning of the Space Race, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the escalation in Vietnam. It was hard to appreciate their uniqueness at the time, but one nice thing about getting older is that you have enough perspective to recognize a "historic moment" as it's happening--you can reflect on it in the present. So it is now with the final flight of the space shuttle.

Although American astronauts will still go into orbit, they'll have to hitch a ride with the Russians. We're outsourcing human spaceflight, which is somewhat ironic given that it was our fear and distrust of the Russians that got America into space in the first place.

I've always believed that exploring space is something worth doing, so I'm ambivalent about this. Certainly the shuttle has plenty of negatives: it's expensive and inherently dangerous. That's why the Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommended that it should not keep flying indefinitely.

There's also the question of its larger purpose. The shuttle can't explore new frontiers and distant worlds; it's a taxi, an SUV for moving people and stuff to low earth orbit.

I think that's why I never really felt passionately about the shuttle. I grew up watching Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo launches. Each seemed to do a bit more, go a bit farther--an inspired, and inspiring, steady progression toward eventually landing on the Moon.

The Moon--what a goal! Bold, daring, ambitious. Who cared what politics originally motivated it? For the first time ever, someone would leave our planet and journey to another world. The endeavor seemed noble, and the vast distances and extreme difficulties lent it a monumental scale.

And no part of Apollo seemed as monumental as the Saturn V moon rocket. Weighing thousands of tons, it would rise off the earth and propel three men to a speed of seven miles per second. Everything about it defied the imagination: too big for any road, its stages had to be moved by barge...the building to assemble it was so cavernous it had its own weather inside...the giant crawler that moved it could carry it miles and climb up a hill without tipping it more than a few inches...on and on.

Compared to this, the shuttle seemed boring and pedestrian. Smaller and less powerful, it wouldn't visit other worlds. Even its name acknowledged lesser expectations; it would simply "shuttle" back and forth between the earth and some nearby orbit, never venturing more than a few hundred miles from the planet--not a journey so much as a commute.

But my perspective on the shuttle changed. Making the Nova show Hubble's Amazing Rescue, I was lucky enough to spend two years following the astronauts and engineers working on the final repair of the Hubble Space Telescope.

With that experience, I got to know more. I spent time with people who work on and fly the shuttle. I got to see one, Atlantis, up close, close enough to touch it. And I saw it launch, carrying seven people who I had gotten to know and like.

I never witnessed a Saturn launch, but words can't convey the immense power of the shuttle. Three miles away, it shook the ground and building; the sound, louder than thunder, pounded you in the chest. The very atmosphere seemed to be shredding, the air itself tearing, crackling and popping. I was amazed to find it brought tears to my eyes, and others have reported the same reaction.

The mission that followed taught me what the shuttle can do. The size of a school bus, weighing twelve tons, Hubble is not an easy thing to maneuver. Yet the shuttle, with its remarkably dexterous robotic arm and huge cargo bay, provided the perfect job site, a veritable workshop in orbit.

That mission really raised the bar for the kind of work humans can do in space, and I grew to respect the shuttle, even if I never romanticized it like I did the Saturn. And now that it's ending, part of me thinks it's a shame.

I wish America had a replacement in the works, and a mission to keep going outward in space; to me, it's inherently worthy, part of the human spirit. But it was the will of the people that made Apollo happen, and that will doesn't exist today.

Like the country song that asks "How can I miss you when you won't go away?" maybe America needs to lose the shuttle to appreciate it. Might this turn out to be a necessary step toward building the will to explore space again? I'm not optimistic--but I keep hoping.

To me, human spaceflight isn't just science and engineering, or a budgetary priority, or an expression of national prestige. It embodies the age-old human dream to explore. I want America to make that a priority again; I want us to keep launching new dreams.

This essay is part of an Inside NOVA series on the final shuttle launch and the future of human space exploration. Look for new guest posts July 6, 7, and 8. Read yesterday's post here.

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