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The last blast
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When the Shuttle Atlantis returns to earth on July 20, it will mark the end of three decades of NASA shuttle missions.

It will be three years, probably more, before NASA returns to space as it prepares to fly to an asteroid and eventually on to Mars, according to Associated Press.

Emotions are mixed at the end of the program.

It has of course been a great and thrilling ride.

We have experienced great national pride in the program over the years, such as in 1983 when Sally Ride became the first American woman to travel to space, and the sorrows of the Challenger disaster in 1986 and the loss of the Columbia in 2003.

But it has also been a great national expense, 14 lives and some $196 billion, or more than twice the original estimates.

The American space program was born at the height of the Cold War in the middle of the previous century. The Soviet Union set a number of firsts as mankind headed to the stars, but American know-how, tenacity and technology paid off and we soon far exceeded our rivals in the race to the moon.

The shuttle program was an extension of that effort, a step that was supposed to lead to a manned landing on Mars before the 20th century's end.

We're still waiting to get there.

NASA Funding has been curtailed as priorities have shifted in both Democratic and Republican administrations. Now, we many others wonder whether space missions are more properly left to private enterprise.

There are many pressing needs here as we battle a foundering economy, but our nation still needs a national space program for practical purposes, too. We don't want to think about the militarization of space, but it was an issue in the original space program and our security must be considered as other nations head for space.

So while NASA programs are not on the fast track of a half-century ago, we still need to reach for the stars.