Forty-three years ago, my family watched the Apollo 8 spacecraft head for the first manned mission beyond earth’s orbit. It was exhilarating. So it is a bittersweet week as the space shuttle orbits above us on that program’s last flight. For the first time in 50 years, the United States will no longer have the ability to launch humans into space.
On Saturday, I listened to Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West interview astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who pointed out that without the space shuttle, our future manned launch capabilities will pass more into the hands of private investors. Tyson’s enthusiasm for manned space exploration brought back some of the thrill of those earlier days. But the costs are huge, and I wonder how we can afford it.
I’ve been thinking about this and what it says about our priorities as a country. I’m not the only one thinking about this, of course, in these days of budget standoffs and tense negotiations. President Obama hosted a Twitter town hall on Wednesday and sent out this question via Twitter:
In order to reduce the deficit, what costs would you cut and what investments would you keep?
It’s a deceptively simple question. What he’s really asking is this: What are our priorities as a nation? What do we value so much that we will put the resources of the federal government behind it? Sometimes, that means that things once deemed to be important—the space program—are no longer seen as our highest priority.
In our line of work, we value children. It’s hard to talk about the value of children solely as a line item in a budget, although of course we have those numbers. I can say with confidence that every single child who does not fall into criminal behavior saves taxpayers between $2 and 4 million. But what is the value of a child? What does it cost our nation when children grow up in fear? What does it cost us as a people when youth are permanently affected by abuse and neglect?
Think for a moment about the words of John Fitzgerald Kennedy nearly 50 years ago, as he discussed the nation’s recently-announced goal to send a man to the moon and return him safely.
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win….
We need to show this level of ambition when it comes to our children, particularly those in the foster care system. 700,000 children experience foster care every year in this country. None of them has a price tag on his or her head; each has a value that is impossible to calculate. We need to be bold as a nation, bold enough to declare that none of these children deserves to be mistreated or neglected. And they all deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, as if their lives were every bit as important as 75 tons of equipment that is about to make its last re-entry back to earth. If we as a society value the next generation, then it’s not enough simply to say it. We need to back up our words with a genuine investment in these children’s lives. We need to accept this challenge. I can think of nothing more important.