Whether it's today or delayed a bit because of weather, the final launch of the space shuttle is a bittersweet moment for NASA, Florida and the nation. For 30 years, the iconic, V-shaped orbiter has soared into space as a symbol of America's dominance of manned exploration. But the era became a holding pattern as the nation wrestled with the dangers and costs of spaceflight. The shuttle's time has passed, but unfortunately without leaving a clear new chapter for NASA or its skilled work force in Florida.
For all the criticism that the shuttle was poorly designed and suited to boring science, it left a legacy the nation should build on. It put more humans into space than any other program. It deployed the Hubble Space Telescope and kept the instrument working, giving the world extraordinary images and a better understanding of our universe. The shuttle played a primary role in construction of the International Space Station; Atlantis' mission, the program's 135th and last, is designed to pack the space station with as many supplies as possible. And it fired the imagination for space exploration in the post-Apollo era.
The harder issue is where America goes from here. Former President George W. Bush outlined a moon-to-Mars vision. President Barack Obama killed that plan but has not articulated a clear path of his own. For now, NASA will rely on the Russian Soyuz capsule to ferry astronauts to the space station. Obama wants to leave low Earth orbit flights to the private sector while NASA develops a new deep-space rocket. But the president has not backed up that vision with money. And Congress is divided over spending for space given the deficit and domestic concerns.
NASA faces a difficult challenge and so does Florida. As the shuttle era ends, the agency needs to find a way to prevent a brain drain from undercutting a national effort to venture into deep space. The phaseout of the shuttle means the loss of at least 7,000 space-related jobs along the east coast of Florida. Engineers and others are turning to the airlines, the defense and clean-energy industries and teaching. NASA will need to retain an employee base with the technical abilities to responsibly manage private contractors. And Florida will need to be aggressive, too, in its efforts to retain this skilled and highly paid work force. These employees are the foundation for businesses, communities and the tax base on the Space Coast. The state has made a good start and should continue reaching out to the commercial aerospace industry.
Today, though, is a chance for Floridians to enjoy a routine that never got old for a final time, looking toward Cape Canaveral at launch time and waiting as the rocket plume arcs across the horizon. The moment would not be complete without honoring the 14 crew members who lost their lives in the Challenger and Columbia disasters. To Atlantis — godspeed, success and a safe return. And here's to a return for NASA as well.