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There’s been a flurry of reports on President Obama’s intentions for our space program—in particular, the Constellation human spaceflight venture. Conceived with the intention of replacing the aging space shuttle and possibly returning humans to the moon, the program is a phantom of John F. Kennedy’s world-changing Apollo Program. Initially, some sources, including New Scientist , claimed that the 2010 budget would include provisions for a return to the moon by 2020. Others seemed certain that lunar prospects had been scrubbed and funds redirected to extend the International Space Station’s service life. Privatized space travel is also on the president’s mind, no doubt in an effort to relieve some of the pressure from NASA, for whom space exploration is still a one-agency show. Expert opinion is divided on Obama’s long-term vision for the Constellation Program. But now, the moon dustup seems settled: The space program’s horizons are, for the time being, fixed.

With the president’s State of the Union Speech Wednesday came not a word about the 2010 budget’s bearing on NASA. He did, however, make longing note of the stateside lag in science, and called for innovation in energy technology. One oblique reference—within a paragraph on science—sounded somewhat reminiscent of the space race challenge.

From the day I took office, I have been told that addressing our larger challenges is too ambitious . . . . For those who make these claims, I have one simple question: How long should we wait? How long should America put its future on hold?

You see, Washington has been telling us to wait for decades, even as the problems have grown worse. Meanwhile, China is not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany is not waiting. India is not waiting. These nations aren’t playing for second place. These nations aren’t playing for second place. They’re putting more emphasis on math and science.

Well I do not accept second-place for the United States of America.

Is this the first time Obama has hinted at the stuff of space races? Nearly one year ago, in a not-so-State of the Union speech to a joint session of Congress, newly inaugurated Obama made a similar, plaintive call:

In the next few days, I will submit a budget to Congress. So often, we have come to view these documents as simply numbers on a page or laundry lists of programs. I see this document differently. I see it as a vision for America—as a blueprint for our future.

My budget does not attempt to solve every problem or address every issue. It reflects the stark reality of what we’ve inherited—a trillion dollar deficit, a financial crisis, and a costly recession.

Given these realities, everyone in this chamber—Democrats and Republicans—will have to sacrifice some worthy priorities for which there are no dollars. And that includes me.

But that does not mean we can afford to ignore our long-term challenges. I reject the view that says our problems will simply take care of themselves; that says government has no role in laying the foundation for our common prosperity.

At the same time, he drew attention to epochs arguably more difficult than our own in which Americans nonetheless sacrificed for the sake of advancement:
History reminds us that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas. In the midst of civil war, we laid railroad tracks from one coast to another that spurred commerce and industry. From the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution came a system of public high schools that prepared our citizens for a new age. In the wake of war and depression, the GI Bill sent a generation to college and created the largest middle-class in history. And a twilight struggle for freedom led to a nation of highways, an American on the moon, and an explosion of technology that still shapes our world.

In each case, government didn’t supplant private enterprise; it catalyzed private enterprise. It created the conditions for thousands of entrepreneurs and new businesses to adapt and to thrive.

The bit about private enterprise confirms current suspicions and makes Richard Branson look somewhat more relevant. But is Obama trying to have it both ways? Is the nostalgic reference to advancement amid struggle a jealous rhetorical hat tip to JFK or is it a genuine hint at the road ahead?

Who knows? There’s still more to this story. Having it both ways is more indicative of Obama’s frustrated ambitions than it is an oracle for our future in space. The president, by all accounts, considers himself a progressive, and it’s hard to think of any undertaking more clearly progressive than space exploration. But is he really? “Progressive” is an awfully nebulous term. The age-old critique submits that progressivism per se contains a logical fallacy: It fails to designate what makes progress identifiable as such, a goal or intended result. In other words, the concept of progress is incoherent without a conceptual framework that includes something toward which to progress.

Chesterton put it better in Heretics : “Progress is a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative.” Once a goal is proposed, we can decide whether or not it’s worth progressing toward. But progress without this step is hardly something to rally around. Who would trust a president who proclaimed, “Trust me, folks—I have an excellent goal in mind and I assure you we’re progressing toward it”? We would dismiss such a president as an elitist and a Gnostic. Yet that’s exactly what some people hear with claims of progress towards “hope” and “change.” Hope and change are, after all, frames of mind that influence our choices, not ends in themselves. Worse, they’ve been abstracted to the point of no return by their incessant repetition. A trip to the moon (or Mars , perhaps) is the kind of thing that makes progress identifiable as progress—it’s a discernable, intelligible goal clear enough to let us know exactly where we’re going and how we’re getting there. It remains to be seen whether or not Obama will be starstruck by this promise.

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