After final shuttle, NASA must return to Earth

The last shuttle, Atlantis, sits on Pad 39A, ready for its valedictory flight.

It is the nature of a shuttle to look kind of lonely on the pad, a safe remove from the control room, the hangars, the observation platforms. The pad is not far from the beach, one of the last stretches of Florida coastline unblemished by hotels and condos.

Beach houses were torn down years ago when the federal government showed up with rockets. Old-timers talk of graveyards and an old schoolhouse lurking out there, the remnants of the era before the coming of the spaceport.

The U.S. space program is middle-aged, facing a painful transition. Atlantis will blast off, if all goes as planned, Friday morning for a 12-day mission to the international space station. And then ... what?

Then a lot of uncertainty. The only sure bet is that thousands of people here will be out of a job.

NASA's critics say the human spaceflight program is in a shambles. They see arm-waving and paperwork rather than a carefully defined mission going forward. NASA has lots of plans, but it has no new rocket ready to launch, no specific destination selected, and no means in the near term to get U.S. astronauts into space other than by buying a seat on one of Russia's aging Soyuz spacecraft.

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