Goodbye, Atlantis
America's Retreat from Space

Flickr user cma3/CC

Space Shuttle Atlantis

Article Highlights

  • Atlantis touches down for the last time, closes out era with #Kennedy dedicating #America to going to the moon

    Tweet This

  • Closing down the shuttle isn't a way to save money: #Obama actually wants NASA's funding to go up

    Tweet This

  • Atlantis' last flight: sad day for those who believe in America's greatness & happy day for those who welcome her decline

    Tweet This

'Four. . . three . . . two . . . one. We have ignition . . . and lift-off."

For more than half a century, that countdown sequence has signaled the start of another daring plunge into the unknown-- what we've come to know as "The Right Stuff."

Now that sound will only be a folk memory. As space shuttle Atlantis touches down for the last time, it closes out an era that began with John Kennedy's dedicating America to going to the moon and stretched through Alan Shepherd, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong to Christa McAuliffe and Mark Kelly.

It involved the crews of Mercury and Apollo and the space shuttle's 135 missions and the engineers of a thousand companies who made those things fly-- and gave us personal computers, cellphones and GPS along the way.

"Atlantis' last flight is a sad day for those who believe in America's greatness and a happy day for those who welcome America's decline." -- Arthur Herman

The situation is deeply frustrating for those who know the shuttle program firsthand, like Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan: "This is the first time in a half century we're going to be sitting on our hands and watching the other guys"-- meaning the Russians-- "and not being able to get into space. Keeping a shuttle in the garage warm and fueled, and ready to go would be . . . a tremendous signal to the rest of the world that we're still in the ball game."

But some don't want us in the game anymore.

Closing down the shuttle isn't a way to save money: President Obama actually wants NASA's funding to go up. But he's also canceling the follow-up Constellation program for returning to the moon-- and turning NASA into a program for Muslim outreach and monitoring climate change.

Oh, and designing a bigger rocket that someday, we're told, could take astronauts and robot ships to asteroids and Mars. Right: We'll see Obama embrace the flat tax first. There's ideology at work here.

Richard Nixon launched the shuttle program in 1972, but the president whose name will always be associated with it is Ronald Reagan.

He oversaw the first orbital flight in 1981, just nine years after the program began. Then, after the Challenger disaster took the lives of McAuliffe and six other shuttle crew members on Jan. 28, 1986, he insisted that the program continue.

Reagan understood that the desire to put Americans into space was part the frontier spirit that had spurred creativity and innovation since the country's founding, and that historian Frederick Jackson Turner argued was the fuel of American exceptionalism.

"Nothing ends here," Reagan assured a heartbroken nation that night. "Our hopes and our journeys continue."

By contrast, the American left always detested the space program as Cold War hubris and saw the Right Stuff as a danger zone filled with hazardously high levels of testosterone. The only value they saw was as a display of big government in action-- when, in fact, the program was really a coming together of American industrial knowhow, engineering innovation, scientific precision and sheer guts that a government could fund but never recreate.

The left has gotten its wish-- for now.

Yes, the technologies behind the shuttle program are outdated, and yes, it has cost us money, some $200 billion over the last four decades. Still, Atlantis' last flight is a sad day for those who believe in America's greatness and a happy day for those who welcome America's decline.

But the American people have not had their final word on Obama's decisions here (as on so much else). Certainly, any Republican presidential candidate who promised to revive the space shuttle would send a powerful signal to the country that the spirit of JFK and Reagan lives and that America's day of leadership is not done.

Arthur Herman is a visiting scholar at AEI.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author


  • Arthur Herman is a historian and author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age (Bantam, 2008), the Mountbatten Prize–nominated To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World (HarperCollins, 2005), the New York Times bestseller How the Scots Invented the Modern World (Three Rivers Press, 2001), and many articles on foreign and military policy. At AEI, Dr. Herman authored a new book that traces the mobilization of American industry, technology, and material production over the course of World War II.
  • Email:
  • Assistant Info

    Name: Neil McCray
    Phone: 2028625826

What's new on AEI

image The Census Bureau and Obamacare: Dumb decision? Yes. Conspiracy? No.
image A 'three-state solution' for Middle East peace
image Give the CBO long-range tools
image The coming collapse of India's communists
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
  • 22
  • 23
  • 24
  • 25
Wednesday, April 23, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Graduation day: How dads’ involvement impacts higher education success

Join a diverse group of panelists — including sociologists, education experts, and students — for a discussion of how public policy and culture can help families lay a firmer foundation for their children’s educational success, and of how the effects of paternal involvement vary by socioeconomic background.

Thursday, April 24, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Getting it right: A better strategy to defeat al Qaeda

This event will coincide with the release of a new report by AEI’s Mary Habeck, which analyzes why current national security policy is failing to stop the advancement of al Qaeda and its affiliates and what the US can do to develop a successful strategy to defeat this enemy.

Friday, April 25, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 1:15 p.m.
Obamacare’s rocky start and uncertain future

During this event, experts with many different views on the ACA will offer their predictions for the future.   

No events scheduled today.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.