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Searching the skies (and party store shelves) for a real hero

Without the help of Party City, Target or Walmart, I threw a "Last Blast" party last week to commemorate the final space shuttle launch. That's because I couldn't find a single napkin, plate or party supply with an astronaut on it.

Plenty of Disney princesses, Tranformers, Marvel Super Heroes, Sesame Street characters and NBA players. But not a single space suit, planet or rocket to be found, even though we were vacationing in New Smyrna Beach, just 30 minutes from Kennedy Space Center.

Even the thick cake catalog at Publix was strangely missing an astronaut or planets scene in its array of icing themes.

Where have all the real heroes gone if you can't even find them in the aisles of your local party supply store?

I don't get it. These men and women we shoot into space have all the qualities we admire as a society – brains, fitness, bravery, a keen sense of adventure – yet the daring career dream of becoming an astronaut just doesn't seem to be on kids' radar these days.

Has rocketing into outer space become so mundane that we've forgotten how bold these space travelers really are? Or have corporate marketers simply cornered the market on our kids' imaginations, which are now captured by movie stars, rock musicians and professional athletes?

After 135 shuttle launches, are we bored with space travel?

No matter how you feel about the way government funds have been used for the 30-year-old space shuttle program, you have to admire the men and women who risk their lives to explore our universe. The Space Program brought us Velcro, Duct Tape and GPS, among other tangible benefits, but it also gave us a humbling perspective about our miniscule place in the heavens and the fragile state of our planet.

Maybe it's the marketers who have it all wrong.

As word spread Friday that, despite dreary weather, Atlantis would lift off as planned, everybody around me started running toward the beach and looking skyward. Hundreds of us standing in the surf cheered as the flame appeared in the sky, only to be swallowed seconds later by the low-lying clouds. The experience filled me with an overwhelming sense of pride and awe. Many of the kids and adults who I spoke to afterward said they were also overcome with emotion at the sight.

And as we ate off our plain red plates and paper cups, not a single one of us seemed bored.