At dawn one morning last November—just as the edge of Earth comprising Florida spun into the field of light bursting from roughly 93 million miles awayshe emerged one last time from the monstrous doors of the Vehicle Assembly Building, twelve stories long but dwarfed. This was what had been billed as the “final mission” of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, a 9.8-mile journey to her final resting place at the Kennedy Space Center’s visitors’ complex. That Atlantis’s journey would begin at the VAB—525 feet tall, the largest single-story structure in the world, having sprouted a half-century ago in the frenzy of the space race, as stupendous an achievement as each of the space-faring rockets that would be assembled inside it—multiplied the emotion.
Very far away, still sheathed in its massive launch-apparatus exoskeleton, one could make out Launchpad 39A, site of the historic Apollo 11 moonwalking blastoff, where Atlantis had also taken off to orbit the Earth, once more and finally, in 2011, marking the last in NASA’s 30-year-old shuttle program. The other surviving orbiters, Discovery and Endeavor, had already completed their extraordinary processionals to museums in northern Virginia and Los Angeles (the latter requiring hundreds of trees cut and roadways reconfigured to accommodate its size). A throng of personnel was on hand, those who had built and maintained and flown her, including some of the 7,000 whose jobs were ending with the program. With signs and T-shirts that read WE LOVE YOU ATLANTIS and THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES and WE MADE HISTORY, they fell in behind her. Many wiped away tears as she crept along at two miles an hour, past the dense, still swampland that had, many times before, exploded along with her, the alligators and pigs and birds flushing at her ignition, the fish heaving themselves from the water, the light from the trail of fire flashing from their scales.
Now the procession was funereal. For NASA’s public-relations machine, desperate to engage Americans’ notoriously fickle interest, it would amount to an odd victory: Stories about Atlantis’s retirement appeared in media outlets across the globe, all written as obituaries. The events of the following evening were equally bleak: A formal dinner at the nearby Radisson commemorating the mission of Apollo 17, whose lunar module had closed its hatch 40 years earlier and ferried the last man back from the moon. In attendance were ten surviving Apollo astronauts, an extraordinary group to say the least, the only men to have traveled to the moon, now gray-haired or bald. Their fears for the nation’s space future were well aired; many of them—including the famously reticent Neil Armstrong, whose recent death had cast a significant pall—had written letters to President Obama saying his space policy portended the nation’s “long downhill slide to mediocrity.” Just as China rushes to land on the moon by the end of this decade, the astronauts noted ruefully, the U.S. is now essentially vehicleless. For a taxpayer-funded fare of almost $71 million per seat, American astronauts are now taxied to the International Space Station by their former archenemies, the Russians, aboard the old, reliable Soyuz rockets against which NASA once raced. The delivery of cargo is now outsourced to private companies. In a tear-stained column titled “In an Earthbound Era, Heaven Has to Wait,” the Times’s Frank Bruni said that for Americans already “profoundly doubtful” and “shaken,” the shuttle’s end “carries the force of cruel metaphor, coming at a time when limits are all we talk about. When we have no stars in our eyes.”
All of which made the scene I’d observed in a desert town in southern New Mexico a week earlier even more exceptional.
In a landscape redolent of Mars, a group of scientists, many of them young NASA astronauts recently decamped to private industry, practically evangelized about this very moment: Unbeknownst to most of the world, after decades of failed Jetsons-esque promises of individual jetpacks for all, people—civilians, you and me, though with a good deal more means—are finally about to ascend to the heavens. If the twentieth-century space race was about the might of the American government, the emerging 21st-century space age is about something perhaps even more powerful—the might of money. The necessary technology has converged in the hands of a particularly boyish group of billionaires whose Right Stuff is less hard-boiled test-pilot, more high-tech entrepreneuring wunderkind—and whose individual financial means eclipse those of most nations. A massive industry is coalescing around them. Towns and states and even some countries are fighting one another for a piece of it. In New Mexico, workers are putting the finishing touches on the first of at least ten spaceports currently under construction around the world. More than 800 people have paid as much as $200,000 apiece to reserve seats on commercial flights into space, some of which are expected to launch, at long last, within a year. Space-travel agents are being trained; space suits are being designed for sex appeal as much as for utility; the founder of the Budget hotel chain is developing pods for short- and long-term stays in Earth’s orbit and beyond. Over beers one night, a former high-ranking NASA official, now employed by Sir Richard Branson of the Virgin transportation conglomerate, put it plainly: “We happen to be alive at the moment when humanity starts leaving the planet.”