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America's first shuttle launch, in , wasn't such a watershed as the moon landing, arguably the pinnacle of human achievement. But the shuttle was nonetheless a major accomplishment. It forecast the possibility that space travel could be predictable, even routine.

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That hasn't come to pass yet, of course. Two of NASA's five shuttles met a tragic end; in the Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff, and in the Columbia disintegrated as it returned to earth. In Houston a grove of oak trees stands as a memorial for the fourteen astronauts who were killed. But space exploration is ongoing, and alternatives to the shuttles have indeed emerged or at least been planned.

Russia's smaller Soyuz capsule, for example, is a cheaper way to send people up.

Book Review: Final Countdown - Universe Today

Commercial interests are planning their own space shipping and transport services. The end has been looming since , when George Bush announced plans to end the space-shuttle programme. He also wanted to return astronauts to the moon, and to send them to Mars by , but funding was not forthcoming. In , Barack Obama declined to issue a reprieve for the shuttle. Optimists suggest that the end of the programme was inevitable, and that ending the wildly expensive shuttles might even be a relief.

If other people take over the routine transportation jobs, it could free up NASA to focus on other things, such as sending an exploratory mission to an asteroid.

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Critics say that retiring the shuttle will dangerously limit NASA's capabilities and, more broadly, that the decision to end the shuttle programme signifies an abdication of America's scientific leadership. NASA counts more than 1, technologies developed for space purposes that have been applied more broadly, from the shuttle programme alone.

Tracking systems developed for the shuttles are now used in GPS devices, for example, and a tiny pump used for fueling the shuttles is being tested for use in artificial hearts. Last week's paper argued that we are likely looking at the end of the Space Age —the retiring shuttles being a symptom rather than a cause. I hope that proves not to be true—can the sun really set on the final frontier?

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That's both the point and the problem, I think. In the future we may have to entertain ourselves on earth.

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You know that; everyone knows that," says the wife in a Philip K. Dick story, annoyed that her husband keeps wishing to go to Mars.

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Alternatively, if the commercial space programmes proceed apace, the space shuttle may someday look like the Pony Express—a triumph of work and will over distance and great danger, and an endeavour that helped to undermine itself by proving what was possible. Join them.

Final countdown : NASA and the end of the Space Shuttle Program

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Book Review: Final Countdown

Shuttle Discovery's Last Mission. Billionaire Space Club. Space Voyages Open For Business. Space Voyages Into The Unknown. It's simple to upgrade to the latest version of one of these browsers: chrome internet explorer firefox safari chrome. I understand and want to continue to the site anyway.