DO YOU remember the first moon landing? Remember where you were when the news reached you? Did you follow the progress of the space program during the 1960s and let your imagination soar with the audacity and wonder of it? I can still remember those blurry images in every detail. If you were alive then, and conscious, I'll bet you can, too.
The Apollo 11 mission was launched on July 16, 1969. After a three-day voyage, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin arrived in lunar orbit. On July 20, Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon.
The U.S. space program represented the best and highest of which our nation was capable. It was an icon for the "can do" attitude that built America. It made us proud. It was a symbol of hope, of belief in the future and our place in it. Watching its progress and its setbacks, we said to ourselves, "Just look at what we can do, if we really put our minds to it. Just think what we will do next."
The Big Dream of landing a man on the moon led naturally to still bigger dreams. Of installing a permanent colony on the moon. Of building space stations and reusable rockets to reduce the cost of going into space. Of exploring Mars and the other planets. Of busting out of the narrow, terrestrial prison in which we have been pent for all of human history and making a home for humanity out in the solar system.
But those dreams were --ed by bean counters and politicians with no vision. The National Aeronautics and Space dTC Administration also helped kill the dream by hyping the moon landings as a one-time circus sideshow and by failing to formulate a coherent program for building on the success of Apollo. Once a young, brash, adventurous upstart, NASA became a stodgy bureaucracy with hardening of the mental arteries and no goal except to get its funding allocation increased.
Now, as we debate whether to kill the space station or merely cripple it, the old arguments are advanced. How can we afford a space program when there are hungry or homeless people on Earth? Why shouldn't the money spent on space be diverted to the homeless?
Advocates for space funding will point out that the entire NASA budget is less than half of 1 percent of the federal budget, so that even if all of it were directed to solve our various social ills, the effect would be negligible. They note that the money spent on space is spent here, on Earth, not launched into the void on NASA rockets. And they list the numerous spin-off technologies that have vastly enriched and improved the lives of everyone. These include medical advances, communications and weather satellites, microelectronics, computers, new materials and more efficient and cleaner ways of generating energy.
When NASA, with all of its faults, spends a dollar, the taxpayer usually receives a dollar's value. Certainly, there are aberrations, such as the Hubble telescope. But in the main, space spending is one of the least wasteful and most productive ways in which the government uses our taxes.
There's another reason the United States needs a strong space program. Such a program, with a clear, easily understood mission and goals that follow progressively from past accomplishments, provides a unifying framework for all of the elements of society. We need a common objective, a common aim -- a project, grand and inspiring, that can involve everyone, even if only to a small degree. Such an enterprise can capture the imagination and enthusiasm of everyone and let us each identify with the goal. Apollo did just that. Schoolchildren, cab drivers, cooks and nurses all followed the program. Everyone supported the goal. It gave us something big to think about, to talk about and to work toward.
In the past, wars provided such a unifying structure. Today, we cannot afford war simply to promote unity. Others might propose more "politically correct" projects as candidates for a unifying force, such as cleaning the environment, curing poverty or saving the whales.
The problem with such proposals is that they are inevitably tainted with leftist politics, hidden agendas and dubious prospects for success. We need something apolitical -- not related to ideology -- to be our unifying program. In wartime, in support of a just cause such as the defeat of a Hitler, all political viewpoints become submerged in the greater effort. Space exploration shares this characteristic: left and right can find reasons to support it. But politically correct causes are inevitably leftist in orientation and promote the hidden agenda of the left: sufficient reason to disqualify them as candidates for generating unity and consensus.
If an intelligent alien were to land on Earth and ask us, "What is the goal, the purpose of your species?", most of us would be unable to answer or would answer that day-to-day survival is the goal that occupies us. But the human race should have a higher vocation than mere survival. One answer might be: "We are working toward leaving our planet, toward exploring the solar system and one day, perhaps, the stars."
James F. Glass is an aerospace engineer who lives in Los Angeles.