If Americans had regarded frontier exploration in the early 1800s with the same indifference that they view the manned space program, there would have been no Louisiana Purchase and westward expansion.
More than likely, there probably would have been no Northwest Ordinance, no Illinois and maybe no America at all, because no one would have arrived on these shores passionate about the promise of the future.
That would have suited some people just fine, believing, as they do, that the establishment of America was a crime against nature. But the rest of us know better, that America, for slavery and all its sins, has been an extraordinary gift to the world and its people's aspirations.
That's something that we should think about as the age of the space shuttle ends when the Atlantis returns from its final orbit of Earth. In 135 flights during 30 years, the fleet of shuttle spacecraft proved the value of near-Earth space flight, advanced science and engineering well beyond what we otherwise would enjoy today and — no small matter — established the United States' dominance in space technology. The shuttle program also brought national heartbreak in 1986 when the Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing seven astronauts.
I can understand that not all Americans today share the excitement of manned space travel, something that my generation in the 1940s and '50s imagined to be bad science fiction of the Flash Gordon variety. (How many of you remember Ming the Merciless?) President John Kennedy's announcement in 1961 before a special session of Congress that the U.S. would send a man to the moon and back before the end of the decade was greeted in not a few quarters with skepticism.
Yet, Kennedy's eloquence of purpose came to firm a nation's resolve. He said, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too ..." Only eight years later, we sat in front of our black and white TV sets watching transfixed at a fuzzy picture of Neil Armstrong's first step on the lunar surface.
Now, we have little to replace the shuttle program, other than an unfocused collection of National Aeronautic and Space Administration endeavors that fail to inspire a nation to progress and greatness. We will have to be content to ride to the Russian space station on Russian rockets. Decades of American engineering and science advances will be left to molder on the shelf.
Even during the golden days of the Apollo lunar program, many Americans were unmoved; some were even hostile to the space program, believing that every dollar spent on it was one less available for necessary anti-poverty and other social programs. Obviously, the total price tag of the shuttle program was expensive, running from $116 billion to more than $200 billion, according to Carl Bialik, The Wall Street Journal's "numbers guy." As elusive as those numbers are, I can't find any calculation of the cost-benefit ratio, measuring the many direct and indirect benefits to society and the American economy.
Can America, now engulfed in crushing indebtedness, afford a space program? If you calculate the benefits by months, the answer is no. There is so much government indebtedness, too much out-of-control spending, too much struggling by too many people.
But if you calculate the benefits by years, decades or longer, the answer has to be yes. The engineering and science that go into a space program are the basic kind that, left to the private sector, is unlikely to get done. Perhaps some entrepreneurs will see a profit in building, say, powerful rockets that will put America's manned space program back in business. But they'll have to make an extraordinarily large investment, and expect minuscule returns for years.
So, as spaceship Atlantis returns for a final time, let's keep some small memory alive of the great heights that the space program has reached so that when times are better, we can quickly reignite the passion that will take us to unimagined frontiers.
This column also appeared in the Chicago Tribune