New Space Drive - the Right Thing to Do ; Civilization Gets More Bang for the Buck in Morale, Technology, Economy

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You can learn a lot from studying billboards. Drive into the town of Cocoa, on Florida's Space Coast, and the first thing you see is a huge sign offering bankruptcy settlements for just $88. Next come two from the real estate sector: "Beat Repossession" and "We Buy Ugly Houses." Advertisements for pawn shops, bail bondsmen, and flea markets confirm an area in crisis.

Then comes a billboard honoring the crew of the shuttle Columbia, which broke up on reentry last February. That sign provides dramatic confirmation of the region's problems. When a spaceship fails, it does so because of mistakes on the ground. The Columbia disaster is a huge emotional burden for the people of Cocoa - but also an economic one.

The future of the space program has been in serious doubt. But now comes news that President Bush will announce a major new space initiative this week that, if approved, will put Americans back on the moon by 2013. Such a mission might in turn be the springboard for a trip to Mars. Under the plans, NASA's budget will increase significantly. Suddenly, they'll be dancing in the streets of Cocoa.

Even before news of the Bush plan, space had become a hot topic again. Before Christmas, we had Beagle 2, the British effort to look for life on Mars, that sadly failed to phone home on its scheduled Christmas Day landing. Then came NASA's much more ambitious project, Spirit, which touched down on Jan. 4. The color photos sent from the Red Planet have the clarity of postcards.

Beagle and Spirit were wonderful holiday presents. After a year of endless bad news, it was refreshing to read of the quest to explore. For me, the latest Mars missions brought nostalgic reminders of the exhilaration I felt 40 years ago when I devoured news of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. While the 1960s was tainted by Vietnam, assassinations, and race riots, for most Americans those tragedies were ameliorated by the delight of putting a man on the moon.

Through history, every vibrant culture has pushed horizons outward. They've done so not simply because of the practical benefits of exploration, but also because discovery is a touchstone of cultural vigor. As John Kennedy remarked in 1962, the US "was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them. This country was conquered by those who moved forward ... no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space."

The moon race touched virtually every aspect of life. For 15 cents and 10 Kix boxtops, I got a space ring. At Christmas, Santa brought space suits and pens that could write upside down. On TV, we watched "I Dream of Jeannie," "My Favorite Martian," "Lost in Space," and "Star Trek." Meanwhile, a great technological revolution took place. University science faculties expanded to meet the needs of the astronauts. One of the best and least appreciated effects of Kennedy's challenge was that it inspired an unprecedented number of young women to embark on science careers.

The quest was naive, but all adventures are. A more pragmatic generation - like today's - would have mobilized every logical reason not to go to the moon. Instead, Americans rose to a collective challenge, plowing through insularity, parsimony, and fear - so great was the enthusiasm, not a single prominent voice was mobilized against it.That wide-eyed pioneer spirit is missing today: Computer geeks think not of going to the moon, but rather of spreading spam, hacking, and playing computer games.

Cynics argue that the space race was merely an expression of cold- war animosity. While undoubtedly true, that doesn't diminish the achievement. Atlas and Apollo might have been developed for the wrong reasons, but the men who built and eventually flew them were inspired by a sublime urge to discover, and a formidable will to progress. It is, admittedly, difficult to justify all that effort for a bag of lunar rocks. …