Few predicted, even in the 1950s, that we'd be walking on the Moon in 1969. Even fewer predicted after that walk on the small world beyond our planet that we would have progressed so little, so slowly, since then.
Richard Nixon saw the space program as JFK's dream, and therefore not worth much support. But he was joined by Democrats such as Walter Mondale, and together the Republicans and the Democrats all but throttled the space program. Like the trampling of the First Amendment, the near-scrapping of the space program has long enjoyed bipartisan support.
The Challenger and Columbia tragedies of course hurt the cause, but even without those disasters, the space program was limping along. The cosmic has had its moments - the images from the Hubble, dots that could be planets around distant suns, some perhaps with life - discovery of conditions for possible life much closer to Earth, on Mars, and elsewhere in our solar system, on the moons of the outer planets - all of those discoveries have been extraordinary.
But in the crucial process of getting people off of this planet, we've barely moved. The age of the shuttle and its modest objectives is coming to an end. That's good. But if it fails before we reach that end, and move on to the next stage, we may never move on at all.
Why is it so important that we get out into space? Not just, I would say, for science, although that is certainly of value. But the most important reasons are almost spiritual - if we don't get off of this planet, we may never learn much more about the meaning of life and intelligence, and what we are doing here on this planet in this galaxy in this universe. We can never learn about our true home and place in the cosmos from this small speck in whatever corner of the universe.
I've been looking up at the stars and wondering what is out there ever since I was a little kid. Let this be the beginning, at last, of an epoch that takes us out there and never looks back.
Useful link: Sylvia Engdahl's space site