21st July 2011
The last of Nasa's re-usable space planes, the Space Shuttle landed at 9.59 GMT (10.59 BST) today (21 July 2011).
As reported on the BBC News website Atlantis, like Discovery and Endeavour before it, is being retired.
The future of space exploration, now remains in limbo. As the BBC reports, US space agency Nasa will now have to turn to the private sector for future astronaut transport services.
The Philadelphia Inquirer's Paul Halpern reports that 50 years after JFK presented Congress with his bold plan to land a man on the moon within a decade "American space exploration and large-scale science in general is in great peril."
He also writes that Atlantis' final mission was "emblematic of the United States' diminishing role as a bearer of the scientific flame."
The money saved by retiring the shuttles was supposed to have been channeled into a renewed mission to the moon, although funding for that was cut in 2010.
So what is the future of space exploration? And does it matter if a space ship never leaves earth again?
The original motivation for sending man into space was to exercise military power. In the 1960s the US and Soviet nations were vying with each other for political and miliatary domination.
Then, money was no object, now it is.
Halpern writes: "Even if an extraordinary wealth of minerals were found within reach of terrestrial vessels, it would have to be excavated and transported back to Earth. Given the colossal expense of manned spaceflight and the relative ease of earthly mining, the prospects for moneymaking missions of this sort are scant."
Private space tourism appears to be where it's at. But Halpern argues that it's likely ventures such as Richard Branson's Virgin Galatic will only involve travel on a tiny fraction of the distance the original Astronauts travelled when they visited the moon, let alone further, to Mars say.
Space exploration has allowed mankind to make some of its greatest discoveries, Teflon for example.
Back in 2008 The Sun listed 25 other things that had been invented as a result of space travel.
These include satellite television and navigation (of course), virtual reality, dialysis, robotics, CAT scans, ear thermometers (a Godsend to the parents of many a toddler), freeze dried food and cordless power tools.
For the moment space-inspired inventions may have to be put on hold, but those interested in investing in space tourism there are websites like Space Ventures Investors.
Your best bet however – is probably to take out a subscription to New Scientist magagzine.
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