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Space shuttles a reminder of America's more ambitious times

The space shuttle Atlantis rolled to a stop shortly after 6 a.m. on July 21 at the Kennedy Space Center, closing a chapter on one of the most far-reaching superpower confrontations in human history: the cold war space race.

That race, and that war, had its origins in the extraordinary technical achievements of the Second World War. The German V-2 rockets that once showered London were transformed into space rockets, as Soviet and American scientists scrambled to be the first humans into outer space. The Soviets won that race, putting Yuri Gagarin into orbit on April 12, 1961.

America responded with the famous Apollo program, committing itself to putting a man on the moon.

It was President John F. Kennedy's famous speech in September 1962 that said: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will service to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills."

A month later, the world would watch in anxious terror as Soviet cargo ships loaded with nuclear weapons turned back at an American naval blockade of Cuba.

The space race was as much about international politics, about the control and mastery of space, a nuclear and technological confrontation with the Soviet Union, as it was about exploration and mystery.

It was about an audacious commitment of public will to a never-before dreamed human achievement, conceived over an apocalyptic confrontation of nuclear powers. But when the first pictures floated back from the early Apollo missions, it was the Earth, in all its fragility and mystery, that snuck through the sabrerattling. They say we went to the moon, but we discovered Earth.

The decommissioning of Atlantis, and of the space shuttle, its service and its legacy, is only faintly heard today over famine in Somalia, economic meltdown in Europe, and midnight deficit deals in the United States itself. But the last flight of the shuttle is a metaphor for another time, when the U.S. galvanized its public, its genius and its power around that singular goal of space flight. And then, its men were walking on the moon. We went for glory and conquest, but in space, we found humility. We went with bravado and quarrel, but became small and fragile.

There are plans for Orion, a conical ship destined for the moon, asteroids and Mars. The rocket, mind you, is an entirely unknown quantity. Plans are supposed to emerge by the end of the summer.

In the interim, NASA will rely on Russia to supply the International Space Station, and two commercial companies - the Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, Calif., and the Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va. - to begin cargo flights next year. The invitation is out to the private sector to provide space transport services.

In what can't fail to seem iconic in these times of fiscal and moral austerity, private companies will pick up the burden of resupply and innovation. Exploring space might be a fading luxury for public America, a sagging superpower swamped with debt and indecision. Mystery seems a virtue for the solvent.

Yet, surely it is a eulogy worth writing; that the nation that split the atom and walked on the moon is buckling under over-consumption, internal fracture and indebtedness. Finally, it may have to abandon the public transcendence of space itself: America's lesser demons robbing its treasury and sapping its will. Names and sacrifices like Challenger and Columbia fit for another time.

For Atlantis, NASA will now begin the work of transforming it into a museum piece. It will be mounted nearby at Kennedy's visitor centre. One can't help but wonder if its broken hull will serve future generations with nostalgia for a time when the boundless audacity of public power galvanized one of the greatest nations in history around a public search for meaning, and origin, and transcendence. Would that our public - and our politics - be worthy of such a project again.