THE COLUMBIA IS LOST, but what remains are all the things that make us human: our grief, our sympathy for the families of the astronauts and the larger family of NASA--and our darker impulses as well. It never takes long for shallow souls to use such an event to promote their own agendas. Already we hear some voices clamoring to blame Congress or the Bush administration for denying NASA adequate funding, while others are saying we should just get blunderbuss government out of all this and privatize space exploration completely. And of course, Saddam Hussein's minions were quick to call the Columbia's fate a sign of "God's vengeance" against America.
But appropriate questions are being asked as well: Whether it still makes sense to continue the shuttle program, and what NASA's long-term goals should be. Many believe the shuttle program should now be scrapped, or at least scaled back, and our focus shifted to grander goals, such as establishing a moon base, or completing a manned mission to Mars. Charles Krauthammer provided some provocative answers to these questions in our magazine two years ago (his piece is posted on The Daily Standard today).
One thing, however, is certain, as President Bush made clear in his fine address to the nation on Saturday: America's exploration of space will continue, because such exploration is intrinsic to the American character.
At the end of his short story "The Swimmers," F. Scott Fitzgerald has his protagonist reflect on the difference between Europe and America (a theme Fitzgerald often explored in his fiction):
"[A]ll his old feeling that America was a bizarre accident, a sort of historical sport, had gone forever. The best of America was the best of the world. . . . France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter--it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart."
Our space program symbolizes America's greatness not because it demonstrates our unsurpassed scientific prowess--though scientific prowess we have--but because it demonstrates that "willingness of the heart," the nobility and generosity and optimism of the American spirit. We explore space not only for the practical scientific knowledge to be gained, but to remember and renew that pioneering character. When President Kennedy set the goal of landing an American on the moon by the end of the 1960s, 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."
And this willingness of the heart--a free people's willingness to "pay any price, bear any burden"--must find its field of play here on earth as well. So we accept the challenges that our time presents us. We choose to fight the scourge of terrorism; to defend ourselves from the horror of terrible weapons in the hands of madmen; to liberate oppressed nations; and to promote respect for human dignity and spread the blessings of self-government. We choose these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard, and because they are right and necessary. We shall continue, then, to seek the truth about ourselves and our universe by exploring earth and space, and to strive to make the world's people safe and free--all the time "asking His blessing and His help," as Kennedy urged at the close of his inaugural address, "but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own."
Lee Bockhorn is associate editor at The Weekly Standard.