Nearly 1 million people, including 14 sitting members of Congress, were in and around Cape Canaveral Fla. Friday to watch Shuttle Atlantis launch toward the heavens and into the history books.
After two tragic accidents and 209 billion of taxpayer dollars, Atlantis' 12-day mission will be the 135th and final for the 30-year old Space Shuttle program.
As this chapter of U.S. space travel winds down, I spoke with Roger Launius, senior curator in the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, about the space shuttle's legacy. He points to three major accomplishments that suggest, to him, the program was well worth the cost:
-- To Boldly Go: The shuttle itself, which he calls a "remarkable flexible space craft that allowed us to do all kinds of things that have never been possible to do before in low earth orbit."
-- More than Tang: Scientific advancements and insights, most notably via the Hubble space telescope.
-- All Together Now: The shuttle has been an integral part in America's role in the international space station, he notes. "Partners and allies and some who didn't used to be allies like the Russians rally around the program and engage in human space flight as a cooperative venture something that we have never been able to do previously and one that has had enormous repercussions not just for the exploration of space which is very real, but also in the context of international cooperative ventures and what that means for the world as a whole."
Astronauts and Cosmonauts holding hands and signing "Kumbaya" in space is great, but Launius says the shuttle program also had tangible benefits for ordinary Americans too.
"There are a whole series of things," he says, micro electronics as a key example. "The micro electronics we [carry] all the time -- our cellphones our calculators, our wrist watches -- some of that knowledge and some of the technology emerged out of the space program."
While Friday's launch generated a tremendous amount of patriotism, pride and nostalgia, the reality is America's space program faces a highly uncertain future as the shuttle program winds down. The Republican-led appropriations panel that oversees NASA has suggested cutting the agency's budget by nearly $2 billion dollars and recommended ending the telescope program that is set to replace the Hubble.
Launius says gutting NASA is not the answer to the country's money problems — and its $18 billion budget really is a drop in massive bucket of federal dollars spent each year.
"The real question" is whether $18 billion is "a reasonable amount of money to invest in the future because NASA is about gaining the future in a whole series of ways," he says. "Not just in the context of technology but in knowledge gained and developing the next generation of science and technology people and so on."
What do you think? Should NASA's budget should be increased, decreased or left alone?