The shuttle Atlantis, in background, sits on Pad 39A where it can be seen by visitors from a four-story observation gantry. (Michael S. Williamson)

There’s also an excellent video on our site, produced by Alex Garcia and Jason Aldeg and their colleagues. Check it out. I found it moving — especially reliving the two shuttle disasters. The videographers nabbed interviews with a bunch of astronauts and space-policy mandarins. You’ll like it.

And I’ve got a story, too. I’ll blog more about the final shutle mission when I get a free moment.

There’s a lot of rancor and confusion surrounding NASA’s future. Critics say the human spaceflight program is a mess, that NASA is moving too slowly on a new deep-space rocket, and that the decision to let commercial companies take over the flights to low earth orbit was a risky one. I’ve talked to the top two people at NASA (Bolden and Garver — see story), who assure me that all is on track, that there’s a program, a mission, a destination. But it gets fuzzy when you ask about details.

Like: Where, exactly, will NASA go next, other than to the space station? An asteroid, is the answer. A NEO — a Near Earth Object. But which one? There are dozens of candidates. And is a rock in space a worthy target for the human spaceflight program? (Mike Griffin, the deposed NASA administrator, doesn’t think so.)

Another question: What rocket will get us to this (unselected, unidentified) asteroid? NASA’s answer is “the SLS,” or Space Launch System. It’s a heavy-lift rocket that would be derived in part from the space shuttle engines and other established space hardware, and would evolve, over time, to allow increasingly ambitious missions into deep space — perhaps all the way to Mars.

But the design of the rocket remains “pre-decisional.” So it doesn’t really exist yet even on paper. We’re a long way from cutting metal.

Here’s the top of my story:

CAPE CANAVERAL — The last shuttle, Atlantis, sits on Pad 39A, ready for its valedictory flight.

It is the nature of a shuttle to look kind of lonely out there on the pad, kept at a safe remove from the control room, the hangars, the observation platforms. The pad is not far from the beach, one of the last stretches of Florida coastline unblemished by hotels and condos. Beach houses were torn down years ago when the federal government showed up with rockets. Old-timers talk of 11 graveyards and an old schoolhouse lurking somewhere out there, the remnants of the era before the coming of the spaceport.

Now the U.S. space program itself is middle-aged, facing a painful transition. Atlantis will blast off, if all goes as planned, at 11:26 a.m. July 8 for a 12-day mission to the international space station. And then . . . what?

Then a lot of uncertainty. The only sure bet is that thousands of people here will be out of a job.

NASA’s critics say the human spaceflight program is in a shambles. They see arm-waving and paperwork rather than a carefully defined mission going forward. NASA has lots of plans, but it has no new rocket ready to launch, no specific destination selected, and no means in the near term to get American astronauts into space other than by buying a seat on one of Russia’s aging Soyuz spacecraft.

The space agency’s leaders say everything’s on track, that the private sector will soon launch astronauts into orbit and let NASA focus on the hard work of deep-space exploration. There is a new heavy-lift rocket in the works, one capable of going far beyond the stomping grounds of the shuttle. President Obama has picked a destination, a near-Earth asteroid, though he did not say which one.

[more to come]