The president's proposal for a new generation of space exploration, with the goal of putting astronauts on Mars, may be reduced to campaign dust by the time you read this.

The most recent plan to make good on NASA's official yearning to get "back to the moon, on to Mars," did not appear to have enough staying power to merit mention in the State of the Union address a scant nine days after the announcement.

More's the pity.

Space only makes sense in a wider context, and that appears to be what set detractors off. Critics saw a space plan introduced as a "Hail Mary" pass at the end of the American century/era/empire. At best, the proposal provided cover for scuttling the troubled shuttle and space station programs while one-upping China's moon shot announcement. At worst, it distracted from problems here on earth -- war, poverty and education, for example -- an excuse for environmental recklessness and an invitation for profiteering on a next-generation boondoggle.

The minority report hinted at a different, more hopeful context rooted in the memory of those who were adolescents when they watched grainy black and white television images of the first lunar landing in 1969. It inspired the imagination and gave entire generations permission to dream, while adults set about building a scientific, technological and industrial framework for exploring space. Even NASA observes that the value of what is found at the destination is, at least initially, less valuable than the innovation and effort necessary to get there.

Now there's a context to draw from.

When the space program serves as the leading edge of a national industrial strategy, it fuels research and development that otherwise would have been impossible. Without the computational requirements of penetrating space, computing and communications would be much more like what they were than what they have become. The legacy extends to breakthrough advances in digital imaging and heart-pump technologies -- not to mention athletic shoes and battery-operated power tools.

Spin-off technologies from the original space race have long since been commercialized and commoditized. Regrettably, but perhaps predictably, manufacturing of many of those products is now done offshore, costing U.S. jobs. Therein lay the other key components of a sound, digitally informed industrial policy.

The first is what British economist Bill Emmott calls comprehensive adjustment assistance, which attempts to help ensure people and communities remain whole, while recognizing that part of the past is being sacrificed for the promise of the future. (See the April 2003 signal:noise, "Disruptive Moment.")

The second component is about investing in and inventing the future. Setting aside the hubris of American exceptionalism, there is a unique inventive quality and capacity in this country to imagine the future, then build it.

It is the stuff of both hope and transition for the beleaguered technology sector, said Intel Chairman Andy Grove, in an otherwise cautionary speech in October 2003 on the future of American jobs and prosperity in a global economy.

A new generation of space exploration could be the catalyst for the last and best chance for the technology sector to avoid the downward spiral of the steel and manufacturing industries.

Grove, admittedly conflicted on the jobs question in an era of offshoring, said plainly that industry and the U.S. government need to get their acts together and increase funding for research and development, improve collaboration among companies on precompetitive technology, and nurture and attract the best talent from here and around the world to work on the next great national priority.

It sounds like a case for space -- in context.

We must answer three vital questions from the 13-year-old sitting in front of an Xbox in the basement: If not this, what? If not space, where? If not now, when?

Paul W. Taylor  |  Contributing Writer