Early in the predawn Florida darkness, the Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down on Earth for the last time and braked to a stop. After a while, the crew of Atlantis boarded their bus back to their quarters, said a few words, and left America's last Shuttle to the museum curators. Eventually, Atlantis will join other space stuff as part of a giant tourist attraction, showing generations of kids what might have been.
The tragedy of the last shuttle mission is not that the program is over. That was bound to happen eventually. After all, it's been around for 30 years. While the shuttles themselves were rated for 100 missions each, and flew no more than one-third of their total lifetimes, the process of turning them around for launch took so long that for them to fly for the full lifetime of their airframes would have taken a century. Let's face it, that's a long time to depend on old technology.
Instead, the tragedy is that we let the manned space program die without another solution. For now, at least, we must depend on buying rides from the Russians to get to the Space Station. One can only wonder how well that will work now that the Russians have a monopoly on space. One must also wonder if John F. Kennedy, who kicked off the manned space program with a challenge to go to the moon, is turning over in his grave.
Of course, there are plans to follow the shuttle program with commercial vehicles that are capable of carrying crews and supplies to the Space Station. Perhaps these vehicles will be built and perhaps once again the United States will be able to ferry people into orbit. But perhaps they won't. Right now, the future of Space-X, the commercial partner most likely to get the contract to take people into space, exists at the mercy of NASA and Congress. Neither organization has proven to be a reliable partner.
But the real future of manned space flight is beyond the low-Earth orbit where we currently seem stuck. Right now we can't actually get people to geosynchronous orbit, a level we once passed in a few hours on our way to the moon. The moon, of course, is out of reach. Mars is unlikely ever to happen now that we've given up the chase and lost our momentum.
But the exploration has not always been a government function. I live in Virginia, where the first explorers arrived more than 400 years ago. In most history books, the feat of reaching Virginia (which was a vastly more dangerous undertaking than spaceflight ever has been just based on the number of people who lost their lives in the attempt) is credited to the English government.