Commentary: Space shuttle's last mission leaves U.S. role in doubt

Did you miss the chance too?

The space shuttle Atlantis ended its 12-day mission Thursday morning at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and with it the wondrous 30-year-old Space Shuttle Program.

It's a fair bet that many of us who always wanted to see a live launch -- especially a night launch -- never did. For a long time it seemed we had time. Save for months after the Challenger disaster in 1986 and the Columbia disaster of 2003, there's always been a shuttle mission scheduled. The program was part of what the United States did -- maintaining the International Space Station, deploying and servicing the Hubble Space Telescope, sending 180 smaller spacecraft into orbit.

Easy to take it for granted. One of these days we'll get to Florida at the right time ...

Now it's history.

This last mission marks an emotional farewell for those who have worked for years on the program. But the difference with this landing is that it seems more final than the end of previous U.S. space endeavors like the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. The end of each of those was a leap to the next, more ambitious step into space, and despite the Soviet head start, the United States was leading the way.

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