The Space Shuttle ended a 30 year run of launches, today, with its final launch at Cape Canaveral. Is this the effective end of government sponsored manned space exploration? Despite the euphoria of the 1960s, what with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions geared to get us to the Moon before the Soviet Union, and along with it an implausibly fictional dream of exploring the universe, we are left with the potential prospect of sending robotic rovers to boldly go where no man has gone before. In 1967 we were dreamers: dreaming of Pan Am passenger shuttles, transporting people to operational Lunar Bases by 2001, or of moving past the speed of light to meet up with Vulcans in the 23rd century. Yet the laws of physics (and economics) are unmoving reality checks, and it appears that where no man will ever get to where no man has gone before.

Yet, despite the silliness of some of our predictions, hopes, and dreams over the past 50 years of manned space travel, I think it’s interesting to note the changes that have occurred between the first and last Shuttle launches. Consider that at the first launch of the Shuttle, in 1981, there were no laptops carried by the astronauts, indeed, there were no laptops at all! The digital cameras they now use to record images and video were also nonexistent. If an astronaut desired to carry a portable music device onboard in 1981, it would have been a Sony Walkman and it would have played cassette tapes. Of course, now an astronaut can slip an iPod in his pocket and carry thousands upon thousands of songs. Or consider the changes in video conferencing, e-mail, cell technology, as well as the computer processing power needed for virtually all of these advancements.

Still, there is a sense of loss as we bid farewell to this part of our history – a decidedly 20th century aspect of history. Will the future of manned space travel move from government funding to that of private enterprise? If so, what are we to make of such a transition? It might end up that such a venture will be an example of how, save for political or national security issues, government is best left out of areas which private enterprise is fully capable of handling.

I leave you with a song, penned by Kate Campbell, comparing the building of a concrete canoe with the first end of the space program…

Bud’s Sea-Mint Boat
by Kate Campbell

He lived his life
A civil service man
Designing toilets
For the space program
He believed
If we could go to the moon
There’s nothing on Earth
A man can’t do

So he ordered a ton
Of sand and clay
In his front yard
He built a frame
Most folks said
It’ll never float
Still they came to see
Bud’s cement boat

A dream is anything
That you want it to be
For some it’s fame and fortune
But for others concrete
Sometimes you just
Gotta follow your heart
No matter where it leads

He gave up fishing
And most of his friends
Worked all night
And every weekend
But he didn’t mind
The sacrifice
Cause he’d build a boat
That’s one of a kind

Well the neighbors thought
It was a real eyesore
They’d say hey Bud
What are ya building that for
And knowing they would
Never understand
He’d just smile and say
Because I can

Well he got laid off
In seventy-four
And they don’t go
To the moon anymore
But down around
The Alabama coast
She still floats
Bud’s Sea-Mint boat