What are they doing out there anyhow? (NASA PHOTO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Today our final shuttle, Atlantis, successfully launched from Cape Canaveral’s Kennedy Space Center. It’s the end of a journey.

It is days like this that I am struck most forcibly by our conspicuous lack of flying cars.

That was the future, they always insisted, back when television was black and white and 3D films were novel. The future was flying cars, food capsules, and little colonies on the moon where tiny white-suited men bounced on the surface of the silent, dimpled sphere.

Our science fiction was populated with this sort of idea. It was directed upwards and outwards, set in the imagined future where we would have colonies on the perpetually rainy Venus or plant trees on Mars. Science fiction author Ray Bradbury’s astronauts strolled into the towns of new planets with the swagger of cowboys. Space was the future, unquestionably.

But then something happened. “Been there, done that,” we said. One small step for man turned into one small twelve-step program to space-sobriety. We eased ourselves out of the unfamiliar. Space ceased to be somewhere you went for its own sake and became a program we praised for its externalities — satellite communications and silly putty and pens that wrote upside down.

The nearest star is more than four light-years away. That’s 39,900,000,000,000 kilometers — and even though kilometers are a dinky European unit, that’s impressive. Why bother? That seems like a lot of effort. What if they were out when we visited? By the time its light hits us, that light is four years old.

And once you lose the desire to visit space simply because it is interesting and start going there because maybe, this time, we will come up with another useful silly putty, you lose the point.

Space is a place we used to go. (Or, if the Internet is to be believed, Space is a soundstage where a group of fiercely loyal liars once congregated in secret.) Space moved backwards. Maybe George Lucas was more prescient than we knew when he set the Star Wars saga “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”

Be an astronaut? That’s become somehow – antiquated, like dreaming of being a telephone operator or a vaudevillian. That’s what the future looked like before we knew what the future really looked like. It’s of a piece with the flying cars and food pills and personal jetpacks. The future turned out to be celebrity tabloids and magical personal screens and the continuation of old feuds, not mankind suddenly clasping hands and setting its sights for the beyond. And perhaps we should have expected that.

These days, we agree with George Kaufman. Terra firma for us, thanks. The more firma, the less terra. We have iPhones. Those are more wondrous than the moon, a lumpy colorless sphere that might be full of sentient car-shaped robots, if I’m reading Transformers right.

First we abandoned MySpace. Now we’re abandoning Space generally. It belongs somewhere between the soda fountain and the discotheque in our historical past. Everything else we liked in the 1960s is on its way back in – mod stylings, the liquid lunch, sexism – so this seems an odd departure. Perhaps we live in the bizarro 1960s. Next the Russians will actually be taking us there. It’s like history is doubling back on itself.

Is it our modern affliction of impatience? Can’t we just CGI that, we ask, instead of sending someone floating off in a tin can? If you can’t do it on your iPad, is it really worth doing? We once learned math to enable us to go to space. Now we neither visit space nor know math.

“It’s not over!” we say. “The private sector will begin ferrying us to the space station in low earth orbit. Maybe we’ll plan to visit a neighboring asteroid.” There is something dangerous in the thought that “we will get around to this eventually, once things are different.” If the Earth said that about a novel it was planning to write, we would shake our heads knowingly.

The difficulty with space travel that exists only in the past and future is that these things have a tendency to shift. Going to Mars takes time. We will go — but not this decade, said President Bush. Or perhaps we will go to an asteroid near earth, said President Obama. But not this decade either. So far, so good — but so far. We keep meaning to go. But the budget may have other ideas change, and the spark may flicker out again. Things down here are interesting. There is a debt ceiling to consider. We have famine and earthquakes and the 2012 primaries. Why look up? Our navels are as fascinating as they have ever been.

And perhaps that is where space belongs — to a foolishly idealistic past, to an impossibly remote future. It is long ago and far away. Here is fine. Here is plenty. Here, there are no flying cars. But what we have is good enough.

The greatest argument against space travel has always been that “we have enough problems right here.” Well, ‘here’ is a strange word. Here is hurtling through space at thousands of kilometers per second. It is only in our minds that we aren’t moving.

And as we hurtle onward through space, on a launch pad in Florida, the pillar of fire transforms into a pillar of cloud and the Atlantis vanishes into the sky. And we look up.

I hope it’s not the last time that we do.