July 9, 2011; 23:00 PDT
July 10, 2011; 06:00 UTC

47 45.652920 N
127 45.681420 W

Yesterday, the space shuttle Atlantis launched on the final mission of the shuttle program. For those wondering, the shared name is not a coincidence. The space shuttle Atlantis is named for the original R/V Atlantis, the first vessel built specifically for marine research, back in 1931. In the ship’s library, there is a signed picture of an early shuttle crew, signed “from one Atlantis to the other”.

There are many differing opinions regarding the future of American presence in space. There are no simple answers to the question of what will replace the shuttle program, however it is important not to listen to hyperbole and uninformed opinions. In approaching the topic, there are several facts to remember. First, that the shuttle program must end. The shuttles are no longer ideal for the work that needs done, and they cannot be operated safely beyond their intended lifespans. It is very, very, unfortunate that a replacement program is not operational. It is a difficult setback. However, we cannot change the current situation, only what we do going forward. Second, as much as it stings, we all must recognize that there will be no interruption in human space exploration, only an hiatus in launches of vehicles built by the American government. International operations continue, along with heavy American involvement. Moving forward, we should not let petty nationalism overshadow the point of our endeavors. Obviously, there are practical concerns affiliated with reliance on other countries, such as logistics and the influence of politics on scientific research. Beyond that, nationalism shouldn’t matter. What connection do you have with an American astronaut that you don’t have with a Russian, French, or German one? Instead of focusing on the achievements of nations, focus on the progress and the achievements themselves. Many people are not aware that the images NASA captures with its cameras (including the Hubble telescope) are public domain, unless otherwise justified. They’re public domain because the public paid for them. NASA devotes a tremendous amount of effort toward reaching out to the public because the entire purpose of scientific research is to learn things and then share them. This recent launch has garnered a lot of attention, but how many people know what the mission objectives of STS 135? A space science mission is planned a lot like a seafaring science mission, and its an exciting set of successes and temporary setbacks (On that note, today, the “top hat” that had stubbornly resisted removal was wrenched free using a successful madea-assisted lift; more information tomorrow). The mission objectives for all NASA operations are available on their website, under “Missions” (http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/main/index.html).

NASA wants public attention, public support, and public involvement. If you have doubts about the future of space exploration, subscribe to their twitter feed, or a mailing list. If you keep in the loop, you’ll find a lot to get excited about, and you’ll be participating in the most important way there is. When people stay interested and informed, space exploration thrives.