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Minnesota Opinion: America's own space legacy 40 years later

(Today) marks the 40th anniversary of the when man first walked on the moon, July 20, 1969. But more important, it's been nearly 37 years since we've been back.

A once-glorified profession has turned into seemingly nothing more than long-haul truckers, as astronauts have ferried fellow astronauts and equipment to the International Space Station in Earth orbit. An important endeavor nonetheless and we've lost lives doing so, but the adventurous spirit of man has been held to no farther than Earth orbit and no cohesive policy has emerged since those wonderful pictures of man walking about the moon.

The U.S. space program is indeed in a funk. Gone is the national will to explore the unknown, and be the first at it. President John F. Kennedy's challenge in the early 1960s that man reach the moon "before this decade is out" was met through a total national effort starting with beefed up science and math curriculums in our schools and innovation from all sectors public and private. Of course, the Cold War was on, and the Soviets were right on our heels. Today, Russians and Americans share duties aboard the space station.

Along the way in that decade of Apollo, we benefited from many spin-offs -- from heart pacemakers to microwave ovens to the beginnings of today's intricate and widespread satellite and cellular communications.

President George H.W. Bush tried to reinvent our space effort by pushing a manned mission to Mars, and President George W. Bush took up that challenge in 2004. But the American public, and Congress' purse strings, disagreed.

As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of man's greatest achievement, we wonder what the next 40 years will bring. NASA is hoping to send man back to the moon around 2020, but the political will doesn't exist today. The Obama administration has put on hold any manned mission planning until it determines what its policy will be. In fact, President Obama's 2010 budget for the space agency includes cuts.

Whether it be to the moon, Mars, or elsewhere, exploration has been part of the human psyche since our time began on this orb. It is our nature to be curious, and it seems that through our curiosity, society is advanced.

Where would we be without Christopher Columbus discovering the Western Hemisphere? Or Marco Polo's discovery of a shorter route to the Orient? Or what if we said Lewis and Clark's expedition to the West Coast was enough, and we just abandoned all west of the Mississippi?

And what of the things we discover along the way, such as new medical devices, new technologies and discovering how we interact with nature around us -- and above us?

There is no doubt we have priorities right here on Earth and that funding space travel is not cheap. But to do nothing would place a false cap on what we can achieve as humans and cause our species to stagnate.

As our population surges past 7 billion people -- doubling in those 40 years -- how will we sustain ourselves when the land runs out and the resources depleted?

We need to plan now for our next Christopher Columbus.