The countdown at Cape Canaveral marked a new beginning for the shuttle program, but also its eventual end.
The two-decade-old space-shuttle program revolutionized manned space flight by employing reusable spacecraft. Missions ranged from conducting student experiments to maintaining and even repairing the Hubble space telescope.
But shuttle missions never went beyond Earth's orbit. It has been more than 30 years since the last manned moon landing. Now, NASA is planning once again to reach further into space.
That's according to John Logsdon, the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington and a member of the accident investigation board that studied the February 2003 "Columbia" shuttle disaster.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Logsdon pointed to the ultimate goal proposed by President George W. Bush 1 1/2 years ago -- to send a manned mission to Mars.
"NASA's focusing right now on the plans for initial return to the moon sometime in the next decade or so, and the buildup of an outpost on the moon, both to do a lot of work on the lunar surface, but also to get the experience and test the equipment for eventually going to Mars," Logsdon said. "But Mars is [a] quarter of a century (eds: 25 years) in the future."
And first NASA must phase out the shuttle program by 2010 -- and that's not soon enough, according to Edward Hudgins, who follows space technology at the Cato Institute. He told RFE/RL that the money spent on the shuttle, as well as the space station, could be better spent on more valuable programs, such as a Mars mission.
"Each year we're wasting $7 billion to $8 billion on the shuttle and the station, and that's simply money that could go to other things and gets in the way of us becoming a space-faring [space-traveling] civilization," Hudgins said.
Hudgins said he believes that privately managed space ventures would be far more efficient than government programs. He pointed to one study that says a privately managed mission to Mars could be mounted at relatively small expense, especially when compared to the shuttle and space-station programs.
"If you asked any scientist whether they would use that money for the shuttle or the station, they would say, no, there are many, many other things you can do," Hudgins said. "And, in fact, [a mission to] Mars would cost between 20 and 30 billion dollars, meaning we could have gone to Mars probably twice for the cost of the International Space Station. It's just a misplaced priority."
Still, Hudgins has high praise for the innovations of the shuttle program, and for the raw bravery that he said must be necessary to be an astronaut -- a thought on many minds as NASA scientists attempt to discover whether minor damage suffered during yesterday's liftoff will put the crew in peril upon reentry.
But Hudgins also scoffed at some of the experiments conducted on behalf of students, and wondered why astronauts should be asked to risk their lives on such projects.
Logsdon also said he has reservations about the program's overall usefulness as well.
"The shuttle, I think, has been an undoubted success," Logsdon said. "The variety of things it can do and has done are unparalleled in the history of space activities. But it was supposed to be easy to operate -- it's not. It was supposed to be relatively inexpensive -- it's very expensive to operate. So I'd say its record is mixed."
Logsdon said the shuttle can be retired with honor but added that it's time to move beyond it.