Leading article: Retreat from the final frontier

The day of the space shuttle is almost over. Discovery, which has completed 38 voyages over the past 27 years, was due to blast off from Cape Canaveral last night, on space warhorse's last ever voyage.

There are scheduled to be just two further shuttle flights this year – one by Endeavour and one by Atlantis – before the three ships in the fleet are permanently grounded, never to blast through the Earth's atmosphere again. And America seems to be retreating from space exploration in general. President Barack Obama says he wants to continue with manned missions. But Congress seems loath to grant Nasa the resources to do this. It's true that rising economic powers such as China and India have space programmes, but they are decades behind Nasa's.

So for a generation which grew up with the excitement of the Cold War space race and expectations of human travel across the solar system, these are sad times.

What makes them still sadder is that one of Discovery's deliveries on its final voyage will be a humanoid robot, which will inhabit the International Space Station.

Perhaps satellites, telescopes and robots are the future face of human space exploration. This is not the future of which we dreamed.

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