When the 135th and last space shuttle flight landed safely this morning at 5:58, most of the country was asleep for the spectacle — an oddly fitting end for a program that started to much fanfare and has now ended, more than 30 years later, to relatively little notice. There was a small flurry of last-minute nostalgia for the high era of space dreams — galleries of imagined space colonies from the seventies and a trending hashtag on Twitter, the technology that's more of our moment — but most of the hand-wringing about what this means for the future of the space program had already happened, at the shuttle's higher-profile launch or even before.
Hanna Rosin, writing in The Atlantic earlier this year, mourned the end of the space shuttle program as the end of a certain sense of possibility:
Back in the 1960s, the story was obvious. Space travel tapped into the grand narrative of our dominance over the Russians in the larger battle between good and evil. ... But the Cold War is long over, and to some extent, so too is the idea of limitless national possibility. These days, the technological advances that get us fired up have to do not with outward exploration but with maximizing our own efficiency—better and more-versatile phones, for instance.
The Atlantis, helmed for its last trip by Christopher J. Ferguson, had flown 33 missions in 26 years. It was a routine last mission, mostly to restock the International Space Station — a task that will be done largely by the Russian spacecraft Soyuz from now on. Other American space shuttles, of course, grabbed national attention for more frightening reasons — the Challenger and Columbia shuttles took the lives of fourteen in their failed missions. The U.S. says it's not done with space exploration, and two American commercial companies will begin cargo flights in 2012. But for now, it's hard not to feel like the space age is over. It never really looked anything like the Jetsons promised.