In an era of cynical greed, Apollo 11 still inspires

As America celebrates the fortieth anniversary of its first visit to the Moon, it seems reasonable to reconsider the broader significance of this event. On one level, the 1969 moon shot was the ultimate in hyper-expensive vanity projects, a bright, bold move that inspired the country, impressed the world, and resulted in untold scientific advancements. It's hard to quantify the intangible benefits of the program; even now, for a certain segment of the populace, part of the wonder of the moon lies in the fact that it holds a wire-impregnated American flag that is eternally flapping in a nonexistent breeze.

On the other hand, exploration of the moon conclusively proved that it is neither a nice, nor particularly interesting, place to visit.

Harvesting its mineral resources would be unimaginably costly, while its brutal cold and searing heat are unbelievably dangerous. Ultimately, sending people to live there would be comparable to shipping convicts to Australia, only without the joys of kangaroos, kookaburras and an atmosphere.

The moon shot gave us Tang and velcro, scientific knowledge and dehydrated ice cream. For all that, however, it's hard to sell it as an economic victory.

Still, there remains the romantic appeal, which explains why NASA -- and George W. Bush -- have been so eager to go back there. The moon is a starting-place, a jumping-off ground. For people who imagine a future rife with trips to Mars and five-year missions to explore strange worlds, the moon is the first step. Until we get back there, Mars will be unimaginable.

Beyond that, America in 2009 could benefit greatly from the kind of nation-pride that characterized the country in 1969. For a generation that is too young to remember World War II or the Apollo landings, nationalism seems cheesy and threadbare. A renewed space program could be the first step toward a renewed sense of non-religious, non-partisan national destiny.

If American astronauts go back to the moon, they will probably do so in an Orion capsule, atop an Ares rocket. It would cost between $28 and $36 billion to put these components into space by the end of 2010. Flying three missions per year through 2015 would run an additional $14 billion.

The usual -- and, admittedly, relevant -- arguments against a new space program generally boil down to the fact that there are numerous vital projects that need to be done on planet earth, any of which would benefit from the infusion of $28-$50 billion. On the other hand, it's also worth noting that the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac bailouts will ultimately cost between $25 billion and $2.5 trillion, depending upon who is doing the accounting.

While it would be nice to make comparisons between trips to the moon and better funded schools, recent history suggest that more likely expenditures would be bank bailouts and Wall Street bonuses. While Goldman-Sachs' record revenues may inspire cynical greed, a moon shot would inspire pride. It's worth asking which value America wants to encourage in its children.

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