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Imagination may be casualty of loss of space program

I sensed a tone of sadness in the reports of Apollo 13 astronaut Capt. James Lovell's speech at BYU last week.

"I'm not sure what the future of manned flight for this country is," he said. "I think we're going to be losing a lot of prestige and be sort of considered as a second-rate space country, but that's my opinion."

Apollo 13, you'll remember, was the ill-fated trip that made it back to Earth successfully only because of ingenuity, quick thinking and faith. It was, as Lovell described it, a "successful failure."

Which pretty much describes the future plans for NASA, except for the successful part.

We were anything but a second-rate space country when I sat in Mrs. Palmer's fourth-grade class more than 40 years ago and watched television as astronauts circled the moon. My classmates and I were so enthralled by the live pictures of Earth as a big gray orb floating in space (our class had a black-and-white TV) that someone finally broke the collective sense of awe by pointing at it and saying, "Hey look! I see myself!"

That was a tumultuous time in American history. Young people marched against a war and threatened to discard all social rules and customs. People questioned everything and everyone. And yet the space program united the nation with a sense of imagination and wonder.

It's that imagination and wonder, as well as the attitude that anything is possible, I worry we will discard if President Barack Obama has his way.

The president would like to cancel the Constellation moon program, which was to be the first step on the long road to Mars, and rely instead on commercial rockets to take people to and from the space station, freeing NASA engineers to develop some type of futuristic technology to move things along.

Constellation, the administration says, is costly and flawed. And yet its plan is as solid as smoke twirling in the air. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told Congress last week that this new vision wasn't up for compromise, and that there is no Plan B. But it's hard to see a Plan A, too.

And while the president spends a lot of time giving speeches about the things he truly wishes to see happen, I've rarely heard him mention the space program.

A trip to Mars would be expensive. But the nation seems to have turned its priorities away from exploration, heroism and discovery and toward the myth of government-imposed security. That's hardly the stuff of greatness.

A lot of Utah jobs would be lost under the president's plans. But this decision goes much deeper than that.

As a nation, we've always had trouble wrapping our imaginations around the possibilities of space. In 1957, after the Soviets launched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, military experts were called upon to offer their assessments. They called it a useless invention because, as they said, satellites can't drop bombs on people.

They couldn't imagine joggers with watches that track their distance and speed using satellites, cell phones that transmit videos, instant television images from around the world or Google Earth.

But we run the risk of having equally impaired imaginations if we dismiss the military aspects of space that seemed so obvious in the 1950s.

Five years ago, I wrote in favor of privatizing the space program, mainly because of costs. I was wrong.

The race to the moon never was a competition to see whether capitalism or communism was superior. The U.S. space program was just as dependent on the public treasury as was the Soviets'. It was, rather, a matter of pride and national security.

Maybe we've lost that vision because our chief enemies these days, fanatical Middle Eastern terrorists, don't have a space program. But the price of becoming "a second-rate space country" is just as unthinkable as it was 40 years ago.

Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail: Visit his blog at