Fifty-four years ago today (July 29, 1958), Congress established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
The space agency was created, in large part, out of fear. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first satellite to orbit the Earth. Sputnik I was a small orb, the size of a basketball, but there was a genuine fear in the country that it was the first step to putting weapons in space.
For the next half-century, NASA was the pride of America. Answering President John F. Kennedy's challenge to put a man on the moon in the decade of the 1960s, on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11's Neil Armstrong met that challenge, stating, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
NASA's research had wide-reaching effects. In medicine alone, its pioneering work in digital imaging helped in the development of CAT scans, MRIs, arthroscopic and laproscopic surgery, noninvasive cardiac procedures, low radiation X-rays, and lifelike prosthetics.
Actually, the list goes on and on. But the main point is that our investment in NASA provided benefits that were unimaginable when the agency was formed.
Now we worry about NASA's future. The space shuttles have been retired, our astronauts now hitch rides on Russian and private rockets to visit the International Space Station. There is an unmanned module that will land on and explore Mars in the coming weeks, but there is no doubt NASA's status has been downgraded.
In its heyday, NASA was a symbol of the country's dreams. With its side benefits like the medical advances cited above, it more than lived up to its promise.
We hope the scaling back of NASA is temporary. A country needs dreams, and we need dreamers to continue to make discoveries like NASA did over the last half century.
* Editorials reflect the opinion of the publisher.