There’s nothing more to say than to say it: The last Space Shuttle flight will take place on July 8th, 2011. After that it will be some time before American’s are in space via NASA rocketry. The Space Shuttle program first started in the aftermath of the end of the Apollo missions. Part of the concern was the fact that most of the Apollo missions went up on huge rockets and only tiny modules would return. Since the Moon was no longer an objective the Shuttle was designed as a workhorse rocket that would have reusable parts (boosters, the Shuttle itself). After some tests (such as the famous non-operational glider decoupling and landing of the Shuttle Enterprise) the Shuttle first flew in April 12 1981. It would continue for over 30 years.
There were bumps in the road, the Challenger Disaster in 1986 on take-off and the Columbia burn-up in reentry in 2003 were major setbacks that resulted in major delays. The biggest problem was that the shuttle was never the ‘Space Truck’ NASA hoped it would be. Initial plans hoped for dozens on flights each year, instead of an average of just over flights per year. But still, it got things done.The fleet is also a bit long in the tooth, and the (accurate) joke about the Shuttle’s computer is that the most powerful computers on board are the laptops the astronauts bring with them. The joke started in the early 90’s to put that in perspective.
Right now NASA is still trying to figure out what will replace the Shuttle program. The previous program was canceled after major delays and cost-overruns turned it into a boondoggle. Time will tell what comes next.