NOT a bird, not a plane, but a space shuttle- hurtling into retirement after nigh on thirty years sticking stuff and folks up in wide black yonder, and bringing other stuff and folks back.

When it comes home for the last time tomorrow grown men will shed a tear.

The sad fact for the space groupies is that the Shuttle no longer gave the NASA the requisite PR bang for an amazing number of bucks. Only when tragedy struck did the world tune in again to remember that people were still popping up and down to the international space station, the world’s costliest bus stop.

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Of course it did other missions too, carting fabby telescopes aloft to send fabby pictures back to that community prone to inter-galactic orgasm. Then again we all had one of those when the boy Armstrong became the man on the moon and produced a decent lunar soundbite. But, you know, been there, done that, and, as with all other wonders of this and other worlds, prone to the law of diminishing novelty returns.

Turns out we didn’t, as predicted, all get to take our buckets and spades to the Sea of Tranquillity. Of course the moonshots brought us reams of new scientific wisdom with practical applications for life on earth.. Of course they did. Though folks seem prone to amnesia when pressed beyond the joys of the non-stick cooking implement.

So farewell Shuttle, and back to the future with fresh excitements over Mars. We’ve been on nodding terms with the red planet since Russia finally won that particular space race by landing a craft 40 years ago. Excitable experts argue as to whether it said hello to the folks back home for 15 or 20 seconds.

Men may not be from Mars, but some get pretty obsessive about it.

And the lovely Venus too. Both have been the subject of missions from Russia, America, Europe, and Japan, with China being the latest to seek fame and lose fortunes. The track record is hardly impressive, with the craft in question having a nasty habit of crashing, exploding, missing the target zone, failing to hit the window of opportunity – they get crap weather up there too – or just going in a huff before they get properly into orbit.

Cue howls of anguish from the astronautical community. Where would humankind be without the discovery gene? Stuck in a cave with hot and cold running monsters. Yes, yes. Calm down. I argue not for the end of scientific exploration of the great unknowns, merely for a re-ordering of the research priorities.

Wouldn’t it be grand if the finest minds bent them in the service of alleviating flood and famine and all manner of medical pestilence? There is hardly a shortage of unsolved mysteries around the causes of human misery which contain at least as many intellectual challenges for tomorrow’s scientists as a career in astrophysics.

What greater thrill of a never more crucial chase than bending every research sinew to avoiding the already evident disasters wrought by man made climate change? Saving the Earth… surely just a mite more urgent than puddles on Mars.

Why not boldly go where no men or women have yet gone in devising a safe method of food production in the more unforgiving climes of our world, or harnessing the wonders of existing technology in pursuit of affordable educational opportunities for the disenfranchised and dispossessed?

How about reversing the decline in bio-diversity, saving endangered species? And can we really rest on our medical research laurels when so many clinical conundrums remain unsolved? Would it not be more exciting to devise fuller functioning artificial body parts, than comfy footwear for the itinerant space explorer? And, another thing, how come no clever clogs has yet fixed it to rain only between midnight and five am?

OK, but there is a serious point here. It is a fine and wonderful thing to be excited by the universe; to dream of exploring our galaxy, to thrill to the thought of undiscovered others. It just might be a smart idea to attend more assiduously to our own little world while we still have one to nurture.