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. The adrenaline rush was a positive force, but it quickly diminished when the race was won.
The benefits of exploration are not, however, restricted to matters of morale. Exploring the unknown promises unknown benefits. These might take the form of something profound like better understanding of our origin, or things mundane like weather satellites, mobile phone batteries, Teflon, and Velcro.
Space exploration is a fundamentally creative enterprise: A seemingly impossible problem is eventually surmounted by a combination of intelligence, courage, and ingenuity. Missions in space allow us to feel - if only vicariously - the creative energy that pushed Columbus and Magellan across oceans.
That kind of energy manifests itself only fleetingly today. Instead of pushing outward, we've adopted a siege mentality, addressing sinister threats by building formidable defenses. Our quest for security has curbed personal freedom with the natural consequence that imagination and dynamism are stifled.The ramparts we've built are supposed to protect our freedom, but where's the expression of that freedom, where are the manifestations of our greatness? Inside our concentric walls of security, one finds only shallow consumerism and stifling self-obsession. Could the current generation summon the dynamism that once put man on the moon?
It took 100,000 years for humans to learn to fly. Then, just 66 years after Kitty Hawk, Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. Now, nearly 35 years since his small step, all that has been achieved is a few dozen shuttle launches and some unmanned probes. The shuttle, a poor compromise between practicality and vision, symbolizes the sterility of our imagination. Its practical benefits - defined mainly by the military - could have been achieved so much more cheaply through a simpler system of unmanned missions. We've spent two decades repeating what we've long known how to do.
A new, more ambitious space program would provide a life- affirming quest. In contrast to Apollo, it would not be a race, but could instead be a collective effort by scientists and engineers around the world. Such a program could be justified by reference to the usual rationalizations, namely spinoff technologies and the need to explore. But it would also be an important symbolic gesture, an overt demonstration of cultural vitality. Put more crudely, it would be like blowing a raspberry at fundamentalism and bigotry. In that sense, it would indeed be a race - a race against darkness.
Mr. Bush seems to be thinking along these lines. Cynics have been quick to ridicule the plans, arguing that he's interested in a base for Star Wars Mark II, or that he's worried by recent Chinese lunar efforts. Others have suggested that Bush, unable to think of a Big Idea, borrows one from Kennedy. But it seems rather churlish to criticize a president for lacking vision and then to ridicule him when he tries to be visionary.
Critics always argue that money spent in space could be used more productively on earth - on poverty or education. But the connection between the two budgets isn't direct - money saved on one isn't automatically spent on the other. The '60s brought high space budgets and the Great Society. After 1975, NASA's budget was cut, but so, too, was welfare spending. In truth, the race to the moon was an indirect form of welfare, providing an enormous boost to education and employment.
Space exploration is a luxury, but an affordable one. Widely accepted estimates show that the moon mission from 1962 to 1972 cost $25 billion - less than any single year's budget for the Vietnam war. With $10 billion spent annually on computer games, Americans spend more on "Space Invaders" than on the space shuttle.
A manned mission to Mars has been estimated by various sources to cost as much as $400 billion. But that wouldn't be money shot just into space; the cutting edge technologies created by it would bring an overdue revitalization of industry. Compared with the billions squandered on a vague mission in Iraq, a mission to Mars seems cheap.
On a recent visit to the Kennedy Space Center, I was struck by a bizarre sight: Outside one of the buildings, two dozen vultures perched smugly on fence posts. While others saw big ugly birds, I saw an ominous metaphor for the decline of our space program.
But, then, inside the building I encountered a full-scale replica of Saturn V and Apollo, which together measure 360 feet long. It was impossible not to feel the pride and creative energy of the people who built those miraculous machines, and the men who flew them. They were people who believed in the possible and saw hope in the future. Where are they now?
* Gerard DeGroot is professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He's researching a new book on the Apollo mission to the moon.(c) Copyright 2004. The Christian Science Monitor…