CHICAGO -- As beautiful as it was to watch the last space shuttle launch, the most emotional part was reading other people's real-time reactions to this closing event.
"My mom remembers when men first landed on the moon," Brian Sozzi, a financial research analyst wistfully reflected on Twitter last Friday. "I will tell my kids I remember when the last manned (American) shuttle lifted off."
"I cried like a baby," tweeted Patty Cleveland, a fourth-grade teacher who was just one of many who admitted to shedding tears when the shuttle lifted off. The awestruck and mournful tone of the momentous occasion was also tinged with anger that America's world leadership role in space exploration has seemingly come to an end.
"We are in a time where we've stopped thinking big. We've stopped thinking about fantastic possibility. We've stopped believing in science," tweeted Amadi, the one-named feminist blogger.
Many beautiful news story comments, blog posts and columns have been cranked out in the last few days similarly bemoaning this end of an era. People saw Atlantis' last flight as either proof that Americans no longer dream big or representative of the dire economic times our government has run into.
C'mon everybody, cheer up. There are plenty of star-dreamers out there to prove we still believe in science. But space exploration has been taken for granted and our expectations of it have gotten way too big for the government to manage.
Look at it this way: I'm under 40 -- the first U.S. moon landing happened five years before I was born. Throughout my lifetime, space exploration was not a miracle so much as foundational history. By the time I was 10, the 1977 space opera "Star Wars" and Ridley Scott's 1979 movie "Alien," wherein a commercial space ship encounters a foreign life form, were "old" movies. The original "Star Trek" television series had been off the air for 15 years.
People of my generation have been ambivalent about the a U.S. government-funded space program while feasting on an endless supply of movie and TV dramatizations of space travel endeavors that could never be funded publicly.
For instance, at a bare minimum, I'd like to pay a reasonable sum to visit the moon in a comfortable, tastefully decorated shuttle with free Wi-Fi, cellphone capability and a continental breakfast. Not gonna happen -- just imagine Congress trying to appropriate funds for that.
But I can imagine my great grandkids exploring space that way on a commercial flight someday. I hope so, anyway.
Yes, this may be the end of the era of big American government forays into space, though that doesn't necessarily mean the next breakthroughs into outer space won't come from the U.S. -- it may just not be a big public project. But more important, the era when American individuals are willing to do anything -- or pay anything -- to experience whatever's "out there" first-hand has probably just begun.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.