Today marks the 41st anniversary of the first moon landing. We know it's not much in vogue to commemorate these anniversaries unless they end in a five or 10, but this is as good a time as any to ponder just what kind of future the U.S. space program has. After all, in the last five decades it seems to have gone from one that focused the eyes of the world on American derring-do and know-how to one lurching around in search of a coherent mission.

Today marks the 41st anniversary of the first moon landing.


We know it's not much in vogue to commemorate these anniversaries unless they end in a five or 10, but this is as good a time as any to ponder just what kind of future the U.S. space program has. After all, in the last five decades it seems to have gone from one that focused the eyes of the world on American derring-do and know-how to one lurching around in search of a coherent mission.


One need look no further than the shifting priorities of the last five years to prove that. First there was the ambitious plan to retire the space shuttle fleet and build a new rocket and space capsule to return man to the moon and then head to Mars. Around $9 billion has been spent on the latter endeavor to date. Then President Obama signaled, through his proposed budget, his intent to cancel the planned moon shot and shift priorities.


In a fight largely to preserve jobs - and theoretically to protect exploration and discovery - elements of Obama's strategy were nibbled away, culminating this past week in a legislative compromise that would extend the shuttle missions into next year but put the kibosh on a moon landing, while building an even newer rocket and generally trying to redirect the program into one that is "flexible" and able to reach different destinations ... once someone figures out where those might be. The talk involves missions to asteroids, then to Mars, but nobody's quite sure of anything other than what aerospace policy expert Loren Thompson told the Los Angeles Times last week: "The space program has never been in as much disarray as it is now."


Add to that such oddities as NASA Director Charles Bolden claiming in an interview that one of his presidentially directed goals was greater outreach with the Muslim world - say what, White House? - and you get an idea that NASA isn't exactly concentrating on going boldly where no man has gone before.


Then there's the waste. For example, the administration managed to first eliminate, then restore but scale back, then leave sitting in limbo the construction of the Orion space capsule intended to put astronauts on the lunar surface. The back-and-forth not only confused workers, it continued to rack up bills, leading some to question where the leadership is. "I have not found anyone in the industry that thinks this makes any economic or technical sense," researcher Douglas Stanley, one of those who conceived the plan for the new moon shot, told the New York Times.


That's not to say NASA isn't doing some useful work. The Hubble Space Telescope, retrofitted last year on a mission led by Pekin's Scott Altman, continues to take astonishing pictures that are helping scientists unlock the mysteries of the universe. The new Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer telescope - a relatively low-budget NASA miracle at $320 million (a single shuttle mission next year is slated to cost $1 billion) - has mapped 25,000 previously unknown asteroids, discovered a new galaxy and given a much clearer picture of our immediate stellar neighborhood. Plenty of space technology has managed to creep into everyday life.


The agency also is trying to partner with private corporations to boost innovation rather than relying on government coffers to fund everything. That said, NASA's $19 billion budget is a drop in the bucket as federal spending goes. Arguably that's a bargain, given the scientific progress for which the agency is responsible.


Absolutely America has its budget challenges now, but at this point nobody's talking seriously about devoting untold time, treasure and energy to being the first to land on Mars or wherever. We'd settle now for making sure the money the agency gets is being spent well, consistent with its traditional mission and with priorities that truly further the cause of science and exploration.


If we can land a man on the moon, surely we can do that.


Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.