On July 8, 2011 the space shuttle Atlantis flew into the heavens for the last time.  Millions of Americans watched in awe, as man took flight into space.  This iconic scene, one that has been quintessentially American since the earliest days of the space race, marks the end of an era.

Jeff Parker / Florida Today (click to view cartoons about the last Space Shuttle mission)

President Obama saluted the shuttle and its crew:

“Behind Atlantis and her crew of brave astronauts stand thousands of dedicated workers who have poured their hearts and souls into America’s Space Shuttle program over the past three decades. To them and all of NASA’s incredible workforce, I want to express my sincere gratitude. You helped our country lead the space age, and you continue to inspire us each day.”

Unfortunately, the President’s gratitude will not provide jobs to the 9,000 Floridians left unemployed.  As CBS News has reported, this is a loss of over $600 million in wages that will no longer be earned or spent in Florida.  It’s not just those directly employed by NASA that will be impacted -- contractors, restaurants, t-shirt vendors all stand to suffer.

Shutting down the space shuttle program will also make it harder to attract top talent to our space programs in the future.  One former NASA employee, speaking in the Washington Post, warned that “given the lengthy hiatus in the U.S. ability to launch astronauts into space, NASA and its contractor partners may run into difficulty attracting and retaining the best and brightest engineering and science talent. Many current employees with critical corporate memory are also likely to depart or retire, making it more difficult for NASA to build on past human spaceflight successes.”

The current state of America’s manned space program stands as a sad commentary on the state of our nation.  Where once we were filled with hope and optimism as we reached for the stars, today we are shutting down this vital program, ceding the heavens to the Chinese and Russians.  There is more at stake than just the jobs of the hard working men and women who staffed the shuttle program, we stand to lose our leading position in space, as well as endanger our national security.

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) underscores the ramifications of quitting the space race:

“There’s a national security component to the space program, there’s all kinds of economic and commercial applications developed in space, so I think the impact of it will be felt across the country, including in Texas and other parts of the country where there are contractors. ... Right now, we don’t have anything to replace the shuttle, and that’s why these folks are hurting.”

Rubio also notes that the loss of the space shuttle program makes us more reliant on Russia:

“From now on, we have to pay the Russians $50 million-an-astronaut to send Americans to the space station. And we have no plans to have anything in place to replace the shuttle any time before 2016. For Washington, it should be ashamed it took so long to deal with this, and that something’s not in place. But it’s important for America moving forward, because China, India, are investing heavily in their space programs. We cannot afford as Americans to lose space supremacy.”

Citizens United explored how man’s journey into space was emblematic of our American exceptionalism.  In our film A City Upon A Hill: The Spirit of American Exceptionalism, Dr. Buzz Aldrin recounted his journey to the moon.  He also addressed the importance of our space program and the dire consequences should we neglect it:

“Our program has become too politicized and we will lose the number one position that this country invested a lot of money in the 60’s and 70’s to be exceptional Americans, and we’re going to lose that American exceptionalism if we allow politics to get in and muck it up.  We’ll be second, the Chinese are going to get back to the moon before we could, and if we’re not careful, the Russians will get to Mars before we do.”

Dr. Aldrin issued a bold challenge: “Why can’t Americans land on Mars permanently?  They land on Mars and become settlers – permanent, and we know how to do that, and we can do that, and lead the world as American exceptional leaders.”  It’s now up to the private sector to achieve this.

We must trust that the private sector will succeed where President Obama has failed.  Let’s return to the moon, let’s chart a course upward and onward, space must remain the American frontier.