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'Final stop' ends an era

Those words, as the Atlantis came to a stop Thursday, brought an end to the 135th shuttle mission. The space shuttle era was officially over.

The question now is where does America go from here?

It had been thought that the next step in man's efforts to reach beyond our planet would be for astronauts to embark on a deep space mission to Mars, but pursuit of that Bush-era proposal was placed on the back burner when President Obama took office and the economy tanked.

Now, the Obama administration is proposing a manned mission to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 and a mission to Mars by 2035 or so.

NASA hasn't settled on a spacecraft design for those missions yet, so whether there will be funding and development work done quickly enough to meet those goals is an unknown as vast as the space that we're looking to explore.

It's a concern that, for the first time since America caught up with the Russians by launching one of our own into outer space a half-century ago, our nation does not have the capability to place a person into orbit. If we want to get an astronaut up to the International Space Station, a facility that would not have been possible without the shuttle program, our astronauts have to hitch a ride with the Russians.

It's a scary thought that we have to rely on a foreign power to ferry our people, but that is the situation we are in.

The Obama administration is looking for private companies to eventually pick up the slack for the Earth orbiting missions. There's no real way to know how soon that will come around. There are private concerns that are looking into such a service, and at trips to the moon, for that matter. Twenty-nine entrepreneurial teams have already signed up to compete for a $30 million purse put up by Internet giant Google. To win the big money, the team has to be the first one to transport a person to the moon, and it has to be done by 2015 -- three and a half short years. While the $30 million prize sounds impressive, one group expects to spend $70 million-$100 million to win the Lunar X contest. The idea is that if you can successfully make the trip there and back, you'll be in line to recoup your development costs on the first trip back.

The space program has come under fire from some as an extravagance that America simply can't afford. There have been immeasurable improvements made in our lives on the surface of the planet because of work that was done outside its atmosphere.

We don't suggest throwing money into space, but we do believe America cannot afford to shut down its space exploration. What we need is a clear plan and direction, one that in the end will deliver benefits to our nation and world. It's time to decide in which direction to take the next step, and then take it.

Oddly enough, the thought may best be summarized by a longtime music personality, Casey Kasem, who signed off his weekly radio program with these words: "Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars."