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Hail and Farewell, Atlantis!

I'm late starting work today because I took the morning off to watch the last space shuttle launch. The weather cooperated and after a brief hold at the 31-second mark, Atlantis lifted off from Kennedy Space Center.

Space Shuttle awaiting launch Spring 2005 We lived in Florida for six years and visited the Cape Canaveral area and the Space Center many times. That photo to the right is our last visit in the Spring of 2005 before we headed back to Texas. The bit of orange you see in the he launch framework is the external propellant tank awaiting the Shuttle Discovery, which took off that summer.

During our time in the Sunshine State, we never saw a launch up close. We were able, though, to view them from our Palm Beach Gardens' home, just down the Atlantic Coast. The night launches in particular were spectacular.

Today's last shuttle launch makes me a little sad. The space program and I essentially grew up together. I remember John F. Kennedy's challenge to land on the moon and have followed NASA's triumphs and tragedies since then. My first job dream was to be an astronaut (until I realized how much math I'd need to learn!) and I once spent the better part of a summer putting together a detailed Apollo module model.

My extended family's 1968 holiday gathering included crowding around my grandparents' television to watch the Christmas Eve broadcast from the Apollo 8 crew.

And my parents made sure my brother and I saw Neil Armstrong historic first step onto the moon.

Later I was honored to work alongside Mike Collins, a member of that first moon mission.

Heck, one of the advantages of living in Greenbelt, Md., in suburban Washington, D.C., was that it was home to the Goddard Space Flight Center. It was great fun having space geeks as neighbors.

Sadly, science and what space exploration contributes to all of us earthbound humans have today fallen out of favor, especially in these budget cutting times.

Folks in ostensible charge promise that although this is the last shuttle mission, America's manned space flight won't end. But it definitely will be different.

We are no longer in control of getting our explorers to the International Space Station and beyond. Instead, that task is going to commercial spaceflight companies,

NASA has long partnered with private industry. It's a smart way to get things done and take advantage of nongovernmental talent. But giving business total control saddens me, too.

Space as primarily a profit center -- and don't kid yourself, that's what commercial means -- doesn't mesh with the wonder, awe, sometimes sadness but ultimately overwhelming pride I felt as a kid and still feel today when I watch a U.S. spacecraft take off and its crew members perform their jobs that I help pay for before they safely return home.

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