By Tom Still
MADISON — One of my son’s prized possessions from our summer vacation is a three-inch replica of a space shuttle, which we bought at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Three-year-old Sam is obsessed with anything that flies, so even after successive trips to the museum he was still exclaiming “Wow!” and chattering with his mother and me about airplanes and rockets.

Our family toured the Air and Space Museum two days after Discovery’s 14-day mission ended in a successful, albeit delayed, return to Earth. The shuttle program is still troubled (nagging problems with heat shield tiles have postponed the next manned space flight) but the joy in Sam’s face and voice told me there’s no turning back on humankind’s quest to explore the vast reaches of space.

Space exploration is, after all, about today’s children. It is about a future in which Sam and millions of other youngsters like him will be able to ponder the twinkling lights of the night sky and seriously consider soaring off to touch them. It is about unlocking the secrets of the universe. It is about better understanding our origins, and about making practical advances in science and technology that will improve life on Earth. And someday, our ability to aim tiny rockets at hurtling asteroids millions of miles away could actually save the human race from extinction.

There are many reasons why space exploration, still dangerous and costly, is worth the risk. One of the biggest reasons is also the most intangible, and sometimes the hardest to explain to those who wonder why we want to revisit the moon or travel to Mars when there are so many problems to be solved on this planet.

Simply put, mankind needs challenges. It needs frontiers to explore. Look into the eyes of a three-year-old, and you will see the fires of imagination. Each generation climbs its own mountains – and leaves even higher peaks for the next to scale. That’s as true for the frontiers of art, music and economics as it is for space travel, math and science.

Nearly 50 years ago, America was shocked into the space age when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. A sense of national emergency was born because the Cold War compelled us to maintain a competitive edge, especially in the strategic arena of space flight.

Today, there is still urgency about space travel – but we are defending against different threats. We must know more about global climate change and how that is affecting storms, polar ice loss and ocean currents. We must use orbiting eyes and ears to enhance our communications, and to act as sentinels of peace. We must learn how to use resources found on the moon (Helium-3 for fuel, for example) and beyond. And we must assess what can be learned by someday escaping the bonds of our solar system.

The shuttle program began in the late 1970s and is scheduled to last until 2010, which seems like an eternity given how much technology has changed. There have been disasters, such as the losses of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003, but there have also been triumphs. Discovery’s return to space and the improvising nature of its crew and the NASA support team will rank among those successes.

More innovation is needed, however, for the space program to grow. The days of space exploration being a government monopoly may be ending. Enterprises such as Space Adventures Ltd. and the Space Company (announced during this year’s Oshkosh fly-in) will push the envelope of technology and human experience.

If all goes well, children such as Sam will live to see things we can only imagine. The future begins with a “Wow!”