OAKLAND, Calif. -- Way back last century, America went space happy. Astronauts were rock stars, flying in the face of gravity and Earth-bound limits, setting celestial records nearly every day. Lost in our love of space, we gazed up at the flecks of glitter in the night sky and wondered what was out there and how far we might someday go.
For the past 30 years, NASA's space shuttles have served as the primary vehicles for our collective out-of-this-world imagination. Though only venturing into low-Earth orbit -- a mere 250 miles to the International Space Station -- shuttles kept a solid American foot in the doorway to more.
But somewhere along the way "astronaut" became just another career. And shuttle expeditions became so routine, the general public often didn't know when a craft was in orbit or not.
And now many aren't aware -- or at least don't seem concerned -- that the program is ending. The last launch of Atlantis is scheduled, weather and mechanics permitting, for today, with nothing following.
So what has become of our zeal for outer space? Is it enough that humans have been to the moon? Or that since we can already see the Mars landscape on Google, why bother going there? Or are we now so focused inward as a culture that we have stopped looking to the stars?
For some, the issue is purely pragmatic: Our biggest challenges exist right here on our own planet.
"The government and scientists haven't made a good case about why we should care (about space exploration) anymore," said Atoosa Savarnejad, 39, a freelance writer in San Jose, Calif. "When I was a kid, I was totally into space and wanted to be an astronaut. But honestly, these days it doesn't affect us that much compared to other things we need to work on."
The issue is money, said Maryann Tarantino, 55, of Clayton, Calif. Space exploration is too expensive in an era of foreclosures and widespread hunger.
"It's not that I'm against exploring space. I guess it's important to keep up with Russia and China on that," said Tarantino, a legal secretary who works in Oakland. "But it's the wrong time for us to be doing it. The costs are too great when people are living in fear of losing their homes."
While scientists and NASA officials say the end of the shuttle program by no means signifies the end of the American space era, government funding for space ventures is indeed shrinking. With no shuttle, U.S. astronauts will still go to the space station, but they'll be hitching rides on Russian Soyuz craft for at least the next five years and eventually move to commercially built vehicles produced by private companies, such as California-based SpaceX.
After that, the plan is for NASA to build a "heavy-lift launch vehicle" to take equipment and humans farther out into the solar system sometime after 2020. Although robotic technology will continue to explore far deeper into space for far less money than is feasible for man, human exploration has long been the dream.
But such efforts require public passion and government support, and this gap in manned missions has some worried that Americans may not have the right stuff anymore.
The shuttle "was the one good thing we had going for us as a country," said April Thompson, a San Francisco financial adviser who suggests that ending the program "has silenced the one truly altruistic venture the United States can say was their own.
"The idea that we went to the moon and didn't find a Starbucks, so why should we bother going back is a sad, sad day for American culture in general," she added. "If we don't keep going, I think future generations will look at this generation and see an opportunity lost."
Many, like Tim Soldati, 46, of Pleasanton, Calif., who grew up with "Star Trek" images of colonies on other planets, said he's "flabbergasted" that NASA is retiring the shuttle without having something right behind it. "And I can't believe more people aren't up in arms about it. Imagine if Facebook went down for an hour. The entire world would come to a halt."
Many scientists and NASA officials say we can reignite the public passion for space, but what we need are more milestones.
"That's what every space mission did in the '60s," said Ben Burress, a staff astronomer at the Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland. "You had the first flight. First orbit. First spacewalk. First man on the moon. And everyone was entranced. But even though we're not doing that right now, I think people are as interested in space exploration as ever."
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York and host of "NOVA scienceNOW" on PBS, said we shouldn't underestimate the importance of the human element in space exploration. His upcoming book, "Space Chronicles: Facing the Final Frontier," addresses the early dreams of manned space flight versus the realities of today.
"Going into space to advance a scientific frontier, by far the most efficient and cheapest way is with robots," Tyson said in a phone interview. "But manned missions can shape the zeitgeist of a nation like no other force. In the '60s and '70s it influenced architecture, literature, music, what people dreamed about. There were 'homes of tomorrow.' It captivated a culture. It influenced what people wanted to be when they grew up."
Astronauts as heroes
Astronauts were heroes then, he said, setting new records every mission. That's something that hasn't happened in a long time.
"If the shuttle boldly goes only where hundreds have gone before, nobody's interested," he said. "But I assert that if you have humans going to Mars, if you learned today that the U.S. was selecting astronauts to walk on its surface -- of course they'd be kids in middle school right now -- can you imagine what effect that would have on the country, on morale? Everyone would be following those future astronauts, what they ate, how they did in college.
"That's inspiration. That's what the manned programs can do."
NASA officials say the next steps for American space exploration depend on the national budget and political will. When President George W. Bush was in office, he outlined a plan to develop an Orion Spacecraft to return to the moon, develop a base there and eventually go on to Mars, said John Allmen, project manager for the space transportation system at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.
"The Obama administration re-evaluated the costs and felt we couldn't afford to do it at this time," Allmen said. "We're still going with the heavy-lift vehicle portion of the Orion project. It will be developed for payload and to transport humans when appropriate."
Still, there are space dreams and young people like 9-year-old Athena Davis from Walnut Creek, Calif., who still wants to be an astronaut, at least after a recent end-of-school outing at Chabot Space & Science Center. "I want to go to Jupiter," she said enthusiastically. "And I bet it'd be cool to see the dark side of the moon."
A mom on the field trip wasn't so sure that's a common sentiment. "I remember when the shuttle first started. Everyone said it was going to be so commonplace and we'd get used to it," said Lori Burton, of Walnut Creek. "I thought then -- no way.
"But it did. And now people are not paying attention like they used to. Everyone's more into vampires right now. It's kind of sad."