Last Shuttle flight to land on anniversary of Moon walk
Forty two years ago tomorrow, Neil Armstrong placed the first human footprint on the Moon. It was the culmination of the riskiest, the most audacious, and the most brilliantly executed technological achievement in human history.
Also tomorrow, the US will retreat from that accomplishment like a whipped dog as the last Shuttle flight will land, thus ending America's manned space program for perhaps a decade.
Nostalgia, bittersweet emotion and jitters about the future of the US space program were on view Wednesday aboard Atlantis as its crew prepared to return home on the last-ever shuttle mission.
Countdown clocks are ticking toward a Thursday pre-dawn touchdown in Florida, where the eyes of the world will turn to witness history as America's most successful space program comes to an end after 30 years.
The crew of four have been preparing for re-entry after a final shuttle mission to the International Space Station, but the US astronauts said the magnitude of what was happening only settled in once they floated away from the ISS on Tuesday.
"It may seem like a sort of an ending, and I suppose to a degree it is. The space shuttle has been with us at the heart and soul of the human spaceflight program for about 30 years, and it's a little sad to see it go away," commander Chris Ferguson said as the crew sat for a series of TV interviews Wednesday.
"It's going to be tough," he said, when he and pilot Doug Hurley bring the wheels of Atlantis to a halt at Kennedy Space Center after a touchdown scheduled for 5:56 am (0956 GMT).
Eventually, we'll get back in space - but in a radically different manner. Private corporations will carry NASA astronauts in the future, and also place their own people in space as first space tourism, and then other applications take center stage.
Unfortunately, the first private orbiting vehicle probably won't be ready until 2017 at the earliest. It will probably be closer to 2020 when one considers the hardware challenges. But there's no stopping private space companies now. They are far into development of the rockets, the crew vehicles, and the infrastructure to make private space travel a reality.