Talk about mixed emotions. Atlantis blasted off at 8:29 PDT this morning - perhaps the last manned mission ever. And this is why I am both sad and happy.
I came of age during the Cold War's race to the moon. I remember watching the Apollo astronauts launch from Cape Canaveral, land on the moon, and splash down in the ocean. The reason I'm a physicist can probably be traced to the space program. That's why I'm sad.
So why would I be happy? I can't think of a single scientific accomplishment of the Shuttle program. One could point to the mission that put the Hubble Telescope into orbit. Plus the Chandra X-ray Observatory, Magellan Venus, the Galileo Jupiter, and the Ulysses solar probes, and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. Great science. Let's not forget the shuttle was used to repair the Hubble, too. But those probes all could have been launched with conventional rockets, and it would have been less expensive to build a new Hubble Telescope than to fix it with the Shuttle. Don't even get me started on the International Space Station.
I love NASA, I love space exploration, and I love all the technology that has flowed from the space program. I want NASA to get as much federal funding as possible, but I want good science.