Space, the great purposeless frontier.

Now, before you start throwing Tang at us, hear us out. It is not space’s fault that it has no prescribed purpose. Rather, it is ours. In 40 years, since we, mankind, put life where life is forbidden, the moon — our thirst for manned exploration and achievement has been slaked.

We beat the Russians, then retired from the celestial ring. Retirement hasn’t been pretty. It’s seen American efforts fall from the heavens in both disgrace and tragedy. We’ve lost advanced technology because scientists failed to convert to metric measurements. We’ve talked about going to Mars, but it never garnered any realistic traction or funding.

In short, it feels like we’ve given up, and left the space exploration to the minds and budgets of Hollywood, so they can dream about the possibilities of the final frontier. We have achieved re-entry into an atmosphere of science fiction, when we seemed so close to making manned space travel scientific fact.

As a measurement of American accomplishment, however, the moon landing ranks equal to splitting the atom. When politicians talk about conquering the pressing problems of our age, they often demand a campaign like that of the Manhattan Project, or the space program.

Those endeavors, however, had something that our current space aspirations didn’t: a purpose. In those cases, it was defeating an enemy that fueled our thrusters. When our dominance was demonstrated, it was replaced by complacency. Yawn, we conquered space. So, what’s next?

What’s next should be finding a new purpose to travel through space. The American ability to travel beyond our planet remains, as evidenced by our unmanned flights. But the purpose for it is now unclear. We are gathering information, but for what end? Instead of sending astronauts into space because we can point and say we did, the American people are saying what’s the point?

That’s the conclusion of public-interest polls, anyway. More and more, the will to spend vast sums for space loses against the critical issues on Earth: health care, taxes, defense, etc. In this era of a trillion-dollar deficit — a figure which seems to be ripped straight from science fiction — where does space exploration now fit?

It fits with a renewed purpose. The early, heady days of NASA laid the groundwork for an entire generation of technological breakthroughs. The computing culture we have developed today is an ancestor of the space program, and its emphasis is on pushing the boundaries of the possible.

This is still possible, while curtailing — or even outright ending — a space program would be the essential admission that the United States is too weighted by its earthly problems to still shoot for the stars.

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