Astronauts are American icons: dauntless men and women who defy gravity and dart among the stars.
But after the last space shuttle takes off this year, American astronauts, who once planted the Stars and Stripes on the moon, may have to thumb a ride back into space aboard a Russian rocket — or a Chinese or Indian one.
It's easy to understand why, in tough economic times, President Obama canceled the Constellation program, which would have returned astronauts to the moon by 2020.
Been there, done that. If the moon was truly worthy real estate, Starbucks would be brewing lattes at one-sixth gravity there.
Besides: Isn't it more important to give Americans health care — or create jobs, save homes or rebuild Afghanistan — than to send men and women to lifeless orbs?
Some scientists have long worried that putting human beings into space takes money from unmanned missions that can delve deeper into the universe at lower cost.
Forty years ago, manned flight put a human face on astounding engineering. But is that true in a time when human beings feel so connected by technologies, they pilot drone aircraft, diagnose diseases and fall in love over the Internet? It was the LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite), not an astronaut, that uncovered water in a crater of the moon last year.
Yet putting humans into pictures from space inspires. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell and so many other innovators who brought about a revolution in software and silicon chips grew up watching men and women reach for the stars. I'm not sure that's mere coincidence.
NASA's current annual budget is about $19 billion, or 0.5 percent of all federal spending. It was about 5 percent when the U.S. landed men on the moon.
In 1966, when President Johnson passed his Great Society programs, including Medicare, food stamps, and Head Start, NASA's budget was still larger than what the government spent on social programs.
This year, federal spending for Health and Human Services will be almost 50 times larger than the space program. Maybe it should be.
But would it be so out of whack, as some space enthusiasts suggest, for the United States to double what's spent on space to, say, 1 percent of the federal budget? To plot a course for Mars, one of Jupiter's moons or an asteroid, and inspire a new generation to new boldness and invention?
Any child will tell you: The stars wink at us.