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EDITORIAL: Sun sets on lunar glory

America throws in the towel on manned space exploration

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On Thursday morning the space shuttle Atlantis landed at Cape Canaveral, marking the end of the U.S. manned space program. The date coincided with the 42-year anniversary of mankind's first steps on the moon. Now the eagle has landed for good.

The Apollo 11 lunar landing was one of the greatest achievements in human history. It had been only 43 years since Robert H. Goddard launched the first primitive liquid-fueled rocket at his Aunt Effie's farm in Auburn, Mass. As a boy, he dreamed of the possibilities of space flight and of one day reaching the moon. Goddard passed away in 1945, but by then rocket technology, spurred by war, was advancing exponentially.

The Soviet Union scored the first great achievement in human space flight when Yuri Gargarin vaulted into the void in April 1961. But the next month, President Kennedy raised the stakes with a dramatic vision: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal," he told Congress, "before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth." It was a bold act of leadership, but the risk engendered the very sense of commitment required to achieve the task. As Kennedy made clear, it was not one man who will go to the moon, "it will be an entire nation."

The space race crystallized a national effort engaging the country's vision, technological prowess and physical bravery. It also elevated the United States in the eyes of the world. At a time when America was wracked with conflict at home and abroad, and beset by critics from across the political spectrum, the quest for the moon unified people in a sense of wonder and anticipation. There was no greater outpouring of global good will for America than on the day the Stars and Stripes were planted on the lunar surface.

Unfortunately, the drama of the space race quickly gave way to an almost routine acceptance. Most people gave the shuttle program little thought, except when tragedies like the Challenger and Columbia disasters brought the dangers of space exploration into grim focus. But these moments passed, and space receded into the background. The end came with a pen stroke through a budget line item.

The passing of the manned space program means less to those who were born after Americans first set foot on the moon. To them, the event is a distant glint of a golden age made more lustrous by time. For many older Americans, there is a tangible sense of loss. It's strongest in that generation who as children clustered around the television at night watching the shadowy black-and-white images of Neil Armstrong leaving the fragile-looking lunar module, descending to the moon's surface and uttering his immortal words as he made one giant leap for mankind. It was a moment of awe, of pride and achievement. Now these children are middle aged and live in a very different world than the one they were born in.

The sense of national unity and commitment has faded. Americans face new uncertainties, new competitors and have lost the faith that the nation's best days still lay before it. With the end of the manned space program comes the realization that we live under a moon that has slowly receded beyond our reach.

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