End of an era for shuttle, and NASA

Still, as the shuttle retires, NASA's manned space program is at a crossroads.

"The commercial cargo delivery systems are not yet ready; commercial crew vehicles are several years, even farther away," said Scott Pace, who used to work for NASA. Now he's the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

Pace isn't sure NASA will ever send another manned rocket into space.

"There may not be one," Pace said. "It may be one where NASA simply buys commercial launch services, or it may be that NASA decides that it really does need to have a government-owned and operated vehicle. You know, the existence of commercial airline services does not mean we don't have military cargo transports. We have both. And we use each as appropriate."

There were three working Space Shuttles. The Atlantis is set for its final flight in July. The Endeavor is in space right now, on its final mission; it lands on Wednesday for the last time.

Discovery lifted off for the final time in February. Right now it's being dismantled.

"They're in the process of 'safetying' the vehicle, as they call it," said Bill Harwood, a CBS News space analyst for the past 20 years. "It's really decommissioning it, getting rid of toxic propellants, taking all the explosive bolts off there, all the toxic things, and ship them off to museums."

Harwood calls the shuttle a magnificent failure.

"It didn't deliver on the political promise of 25 flights a year that was promised. But it was a magnificent vehicle, and I think everyone's going to miss it when it's gone," he said.

NASA's William Gerstenmaier said, "Intellectually, I think we've been knowing this end is coming. But I think emotionally it's still tough, as each vehicle kind of retires."

"Yeah, it'll be emotional," said NASA Administrator Bolden. "But it's necessary. And what tempers the emotion is the emotion of joy that I feel, because like I said, we're being given a very, very, very rare opportunity to make this nation again be the leader of human exploration beyond lower-Earth orbit.

"I cannot believe that when given this choice, the American public won't say, 'Hey I want to be a part of that. I want to be living when humans once again travel beyond lower-Earth orbit. I want my kids to see what I saw.' I'll cry -

"In 1969 when humans walked on the moon," Bolden said, getting emotional. "I want my granddaughters to see another human go to another heavenly body. So, yeah, you know, I get emotional about that, and I apologize."

"I totally understand. I do, too," said Pogue.

And maybe THAT's why, when the Endeavor was FINALLY fixed up and cleared for its last takeoff two weeks ago, suddenly all the delays and the glitches didn't seem to matter.

So the space shuttle may not be technologically necessary anymore. But it had a huge symbolic value, a poetic patriotic value, and it's sad to see it end.

Now NASA will retool. It hopes to go where the space shuttle was built to go, onward and upward ...

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