(Please see UPDATE at end)
Later today, if all goes as planned, Shuttle Atlantis will be launched on the last ever Shuttle Mission, designated as ST-135. Full details of all Shuttle missions are listed here, from the first test flights until the later operational flights.
I am lucky enough to have been on vacation in Florida during the time of one of the launches in 1985 and because my itinerary was flexible I extended my stay in the Daytona Beach area for a couple of extra days, staying at an hotel on Cocoa Beach just south of Cape Canaveral (aka Cape Kennedy) so that I could line up on the beach with several hundred others to watch the launch and even although we were in fact some miles away from the launch site it was quite impressive. A couple of days earlier I had in fact visited the Kennedy Space Center on a regular tourist bus picked up through my hotel and enjoyed it very much - quite apart from visiting the various exhibition halls there (for example the displays relating to the Apollo moon missions and the old mission control room used for them) we were taken on a tour of a small part of the base, which is vast, with the various launch sites pointed out in the distance even although for security reasons we were never taken very close to them - but because the assemble halls and launch structures are so huge one never had any difficulty in seeing them.
So that was pretty exciting, but a few months later my memories of watching the launch of mission STS-61-A on 30th October 1985 (the 22nd Shuttle mission) became somewhat bittersweet, because that was the penultimate mission of Shuttle Challenger, which exploded soon after its launch on 28th January 1986 (Shuttle mission 25).
Now the International Space Staion will be reliant on manned flights provided by the Russians and in future it seems possible that the major space-faring nation will be China. Who knows? All of this will probably come when I am far too old to know or care, or perhaps after my demise. Near-Earth flights seem to be what we will be limited to for the forseeable future.
My hope of course is that today's planned launch of Shuttle Atlantis will see its 12-day mission completed successfully and safely.
UPDATE (Friday 08JUL2011 16.40 BST) Shuttle Atlantis was successfully launched about 10 minutes ago, I am very happy to record.