When Atlantis lifted off from its launchpad on July 8, 2011, it marked the end of an era. The thirty-year space shuttle program is now over. Never again will we thrill at the sight of the planet’s first winged spacecraft affixed to an external tank with two solid rocket boosters (in what became an iconic shape for our generation) blast off in billows of smoke and fire. And never were nature travels — for the astronauts or for us — more exciting!
NASA is saying that it will focus on missions to Mars next, however robots may be the new astronauts. But the thought of having no human beings stepping again onto pristine, natural, new worlds in our lifetimes is sobering.
On the bright side, though, perhaps the robots will do a better job than we have of leaving no carbon footprint on the places they wander.
For now, let’s just watch Atlantis’s historic launch, one more time.