by Lowman S. Henry | January 15, 2004

America again ready to explore the ‘final frontier’

It has been just about one year since the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over the skies of the western United States . The months since that tragedy have been a time of recrimination, reflection, and now – renewal.

The space program has been a vital part of the American psyche for over 50 years. Having conquered a continent, the pioneering spirit of our nation turned to the final frontier to slake its thirst for exploration.

A year ago, the loss of Columbia and its heroic crew provided an apt metaphor for a nation struggling to find its way. We were still reeling from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 , the economy was mired in recession, and an uncertain war loomed in Iraq . As the debris of the space shuttle fell to earth, so too did the hopes and dreams of the American people.

As so often happens, however, tragedy and challenge inspired our national resolve. A year later our economy is revived, Saddam Hussein is our prisoner, our homeland is more secure, and our President has issued a bold, visionary clarion call to revive space exploration.

July 20, 1969 is a day anyone who was alive and conscious will always remember. I can recall sitting in front of our family’s black and white television set and watching in awe as Neil Armstrong took that small step that represented a giant leap for mankind. America had put a man on the moon and the possibilities for our nation seemed endless.

In the decades that followed we have capitalized greatly on the technology developed for the moon landings and other space projects. The great economic expansion of the U.S. economy during the 80’s and 90’s came as a result of technological advances – many, if not most, of which traced their roots back to the space program.

Now, President Bush has put before America a space agenda more ambitious than any since President Kennedy’s vow to put man on the moon in the 60’s. The Bush vision for NASA calls not just for returning the moon, but colonizing it through the establishment of a permanent base. From that starting point, a manned mission will be launched to Mars.

Make no mistake, the President’s plan will push the boundaries of technology, engineering, finances, and spirit. But, the Bush plan is no more idealistic than that outlined by President Kennedy at the beginning of that decade long ago.

Critics are already complaining about the cost. The federal budget deficit, driven by our response to terrorism and war, is certainly a matter for great concern. By history has proven that every dollar spent on space exploration has paid huge dividends in civilian technological advances. The national security and military benefits of space supremacy should also not be overlooked. This is one area where federal spending is an investment, not a cost.

To balance the new spending, President Bush is proposing to end the expensive shuttle program which takes almost 20,000 people to maintain and costs over $500 million per flight. He also wants to scale back U.S. involvement in the international space station, the benefits to which are limited. This will free up dollars for the more promising lunar and Martian projects.

The recent photographs beamed back to Earth from Mars have again ignited the American imagination and lust for exploration. Even more important than the tangible benefits of the President’s bold new vision for man to travel to other worlds, the new space program represents a revival of our national spirit – a spirit which will soar to new heights years from now when we all again gather around our high definition plasma screen televisions to watch a new generation’s Neil Armstrong take mankind’s next giant leap onto the surface of Mars.