The Space Shuttle Atlantis' lift-off, the final shuttle mission, could mark the beginning of new space era. Or, it could mark something more somber: the continued decling in both interest and -- equally significant -- public/political support for the U.S. space program.

To be sure, the final shuttle mission does not mean an end to NASA, or of NASA sending humans into space. NASA has a robust program of exploration, technology development and scientific research that will surely last for years to come.

NASA is designing and building the capabilities to send humans to explore the solar system, working toward a goal of landing humans on Mars. It will build the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, based on the design for the Orion capsule, with a capacity to take four astronauts on 21-day missions.

In addition, the International Space Station is the centerpiece of our human spaceflight activities in low Earth orbit. The ISS is fully staffed with a crew of six, and American astronauts will continue to live and work there in space 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Part of the U.S. portion of the station has been designated as a national laboratory, and NASA is committed to using this unique resource for scientific research.

That said, the above projects simply do not have the intensity -- public relations professionals call it the juice -- of earlier NASA programs.

And the reason the above programs, along with the shuttle, will not generate the mass support and fervor is obvious enough. Generations ago, the United States, the leader of the free world, was in an existential struggle with another economic and political system: communism, led by the Soviet Union, now Russia.

And in 1957, the Soviets -- allegedly weighed down by an inferior economic system that yielded slower scientific breakthroughs -- somehow beat the United States in to space by launching its Sputnik satellite.

The U.S. leadership's and public's reaction? Panic. Pure, unadulterated panic. The reason? It didn't take a rocket scientist, pun intended, to deduce that if the Soviets could put a satellite into orbit, they could put a nuclear-capped missile -- an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) -- into orbit as well, aimed at the United States.

And, the space race between the superpowers was on: first to manned space flight, and then to the moon.

President John F. Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, elected in 1960, committed the nation to landing a man on the moon in the decade of his presidency.

 I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth, President Kennedy said in 1961.

The United States accomplished Kennedy's goal and won the space race, becoming the first nation to land humans on the moon on July 20,1969. It was, in Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong's words, One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

However, since that time the world has changed geopolitically, socially and economically. The Soviet Union disbanded, after it became clear to Russia's leaders that much of the communist centrally-planned economy was a failure, and economically discredited. At the very least the economic system called Soviet communism could not cope with a modern, commercial environment that requires almost continual business model adjustments.

Meanwhile, the United States overspent on both defense and (it appears) on entitlement programs -- and also under-taxed itself to the point that it now has a more than $14 trillion national debt. Translation: The U.S. will have to spend the next two decades paying off its debt and investing in infrastructure, education, research, and health care. It doesn't have the money for a big-ticket space program as it did in the 1960s and 1970s.

It's not a goal level Americans are accustomed to, but it's the reality, at least until the U.S. has finished paying its bills.