CAPE CANAVERAL -- I took this picture last night, and I don’t like it very much.

Let’s set aside discussions of artistic merit and admit that it’s a pretty dreary view of the last functioning space shuttle perched on its launch pad. Especially when NASA promised a glorious sunset.

I’m a 20-something science journalist now covering my fifth space shuttle mission, and I’ve never known another spaceship. And in so many ways the mundane story behind the creation of this photograph parallels my feelings about the 30-year-long, $209-billion space program.

NASA teased us press types here at Kennedy Space Center with promises of a smooth and timely ride out to Launch Pad 39A to take pictures of Atlantis basking in the glow of the setting sun.

The event ended up as a typical NASA press relations fiasco.

They ran over budget on both time and people. They anticipated about 100 reporters and got roughly double that. Meanwhile, the rain drizzled down and the vicious Cape mosquitoes hunted for fresh blood. We sat in the rain with our buggy friends for an hour in front of several empty idling buses, with no leadership in site.

At the end of that hour, around 8:00 p.m. EDT, someone at NASA decided to skip their normal dog-sniffing security check of our equipment bags (was that the non-existent thing that we were waiting for?). When we finally got on the bus, the thoroughly air-conditioned driver was happily listening to "Honky Tonk Blues" by Hank Williams.

The ride was short, just a couple of miles—one we could have walked in the time we choked on diesel exhaust.

The 30-year tale of the space shuttle, I thought on the bus ride back, shared some eerie similarity.

NASA’s original plan was to usher in an efficient, make-America-proud kind of space program to follow Apollo. A glorious sunset, if you will. But political winds neutered half the $10 billion or so in the early 1970s that NASA felt it needed to develop a truly robust, reusable human launch system (and build a space station).

They hoped for 64 launches a year, but we ultimately got four and change. Each launch cost Americans about $1.5 billion (totaling about $209 billion for the entire program, by popular estimates).

And we didn’t go very far. Most of the time the shuttle sped into orbit just a couple hundred miles above the Earth. Granted, the program sent up and repaired Hubble, sent off a planetary spacecraft, and built the International Space Station. Missions accomplished.

But the promise of glorious spaceflight Americans came to expect—the stuff of risky expeditions to the moon, for example—never materialized. Instead of a spaceship, my generation got the most complex and expensive freight truck ever created.

I’m thrilled NASA plans to hand the torch of routine low-Earth orbit launches over to commercial interests. I believe businesses can do it faster, cheaper and better than a bureaucratic government agency. The reason: money talks.

That said, NASA still has a crucial role to play in the advancement of our species.

I can’t speak in behalf of all starry-eyed 20-somethings, but I want the political leadership of this country to conjure up a daring and focused vision for the future of human spaceflight, and deliver it to NASA. Not a lame-duck promise to go somewhere when budgets are crumbling, but a unified, John F. Kennedy-esque mission Americans can get behind.

Pick one place in space to go other than a slice above this planet—Mars, the moon, an asteroid, whatever—and let’s take advantage of NASA’s incredible brainpower to make it happen.

As the long-overdue space shuttle program sunsets, I believe my generation deserves it.

Image: Atlantis on the launch pad, July 7, 2011. Credit: Dave Mosher

About the Author: Dave Mosher is a science journalist who's obsessed with space, physics, biology, technology and more. He lives in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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