In a matter of days, Atlantis will return from its final visit to the International Space Station (ISS). Its return to Earth will represent the end of the American Space Shuttle Program.
It is fair to say that to this point, man has merely "dabbled" in space. Man has seen very little of space, and only a small number of men and women have reached altitudes beyond our atmosphere. Still, the shuttle program is the most impressive dabbling we have done to date, and we have NASA to thank for it.
Atlantis and its sister ships (Endeavour, Discovery, Challenger, and Colombia) have been shuttling astronauts to and from the ISS on a regular basis like tourists to a far-out hotel. In so doing, man has maintained a continuous presence in orbit, and have developed the ISS into a humble home. The ISS is like a high tech country house, but one further off the beaten path than that of The Shining.
Over the coming years, America will need to hitch a ride on another nation's ship to access the ISS: the Russian Soyuz spacecraft is the only one that can carry a crew. There are several other Russian, Japanese, and European ships that can shuttle supplies to the ISS.
In its storied history, the shuttle program saw many highs and lows. The 1986 and 2003 disasters of Challenger (lift-off) and Colombia (re-entry) claimed the lives of 14 astronauts collectively. The fact that 2 out of the 135 flights that the various shuttles took ended in disaster illustrates how dangerous manned spaceflight truly is.
In addition to being dangerous, the shuttle program has been expensive: 200 billion US dollars in total. A typical transit (with return) to the ISS costs 500 million US dollars. Given the current economic woes plaguing the United States along with most other nations, man's presence in space may begin to dwindle over time.
The retirement of the space shuttle severely diminishes man's access to space. Imagine the mess an island city would be in if its most popular bridges were suddenly closed with no plans to build new ones (my local Montreal readers can relate to this circumstance).