It’s been over four years since President Bush (that fount of scientific wisdom!) announced his “Vision for Space Exploration” that ordered NASA to retire the Space Shuttle fleet by 2010. The end is approaching faster than I realized: this week, NASA announced launch dates for the 10 remaining Shuttle missions.

For people of my generation, the Shuttle has been the defining image of American spaceflight. More distinctive and graceful than any other spacecraft, we grew up in its shadow. We watched the Challenger explode when we were in kindergarten, but that did not deter our enthusiasm. When astronauts came to speak at school we watched cliché videos of zero-G somersaults with rapt attention. We owned die-cast models of the orbiter. We visited the Kennedy Space Center. We saw footage from a seemingly endless sequence of picture-perfect takeoffs and flawless landings on the TV news.

What I have not done is to fulfill a life goal of mine: to watch a launch in person. Attending one is a tricky affair: one should procure a pass in advance, travel to an ugly coastal town in Florida, pray for perfect weather, and wait. But the window of opportunity is now rapidly closing.