The space shuttle Discovery made its final departure from the Kennedy Space Center today, headed for a display at the National Air & Space Museum.
The Discovery is the first of the retired space shuttles to be sent to a museum. The Atlantis returned as NASA's last space shuttle mission last July, ending a program that began its retirement in 2003 when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere.
President George W. Bush unveiled a "Vision for Space Exploration" that included a moon base and a mission to Mars, but economic reality and a recession hit in and the plans were scrapped by President Obama before the space shuttles they were replacing were.
Today, NASA relies on contracts with private space transport companies like SpaceX to get to the International Space Station (on which federal money's been spent since the Reagan Administration). SpaceX will launch NASA's first mission to the space station on April 30, and has more than $2 billion in NASA contracts.
But because government spending goes up even when it's not doing anything, NASA's budget continues to rise. It spent $2.6 billion more in 2011 than 2004 despite the scaled back ambitions. No matter how trivial NASA's mission becomes, it'll find a way to keep spending more money. And for all the romanticizing about NASA's Apollo program, spending on NASA hit 5% of the federal budget in 1965 and astronauts never came back anywhere close to the moon since Apollo 17, almost forty years ago.
Could human space exploration flourish best without government intervention? Reason's February issue is all about it.