You keep running into comments about outer space and how wonderful it is and what a challenge it is, and if you don't get up and move you are pretty certain to hear somebody say something about Magellan and Columbus.

Which is twaddle.

There is something to be said for space exploration, but there is a great deal to be said against the dreamy-faced loons (who tend to be space enthusiasts by nature) who love space mainly for its symbolic value -- clean, cold, unpolluted, close-to-God, etc., without any notion of what may be accomplished there.

It started with the shock that the Russians were first in space with their Sputnik. It was extremely important for America to get going. We were disappointed, if not ashamed, to have them ahead of us.

But then we were first to get men on the moon, a marvelous achievement, and that showed us we could do amazing things once we set our mind to it.

It's well to remember, however, that at the moment we can't get anybody in space, while we work out a few technical problems. And even assuming that will change, the question arises what we intend to do there and how feasible our dreams are and how much the fulfilment will cost.

It can be argued that as long as space flight brings scientific facts to our planet, we should pursue it. Not only did we learn, once and for all, that the moon is positively not green cheese, but we also learned some things about the moon's crust.

Such knowledge is not without its costs. One of the moon rocks was set into a window of the Washington Cathedral, and the window has the distinction of being the ugliest single stained-glass effort in Christendom, so I count that among the costs of space exploration.

The window, in its day-glo bombastic ugliness is not only wretched in itself, but also illustrates the urgent leap for glitz and general crap that has always been a conspicuous feature of our national character, and which is always reinforced and amplified whenever something new comes along, whether it's cars or ovens or sliced bread or space travel.

Those reinforcements of what may be called the gee-ain't-we-swell syndrome of our national soul are additional costs of the space program.

But what else, besides scientific knowledge, is the space program good for? Well, no doubt it reminds other world powers that we are competent in technology, more or less, and that is not a bad thing. It is a very good thing. But it is not an infinitely valuable thing.

When people speak of the "challenge of discovery" they speak well, provided they mean science is worth pursuing, and provided the most qualified scientists believe space exploration produces (or may yet produce) knowledge in astronomy, physics, chemistry, that justifies the cost.

On the other hand, it is not in the least like Columbus. He knew the earth was round, and he knew there was China with her riches, and he was not among the nincompoops who thought his crew would fall off the planet, when they rounded Gibraltar. He assumed that within the latitudes of his sailing nothing was going to be very different from the Europe, Africa and Asia already known. And of course South America and North America are quite similar to other continents, which is not surprising since they were once all joined together.

As it turned out, the Americas vary in interesting ways from the Old World, but the trees, animals, waters, airs of the new are closely related to those of the old. Humans who lived in the known continents could perfectly well live in the new.

It is not so in space. Naturally there are people who think Eden is on the next star down the road, but no evidence suggests this and vast evidence suggests the contrary.

We could conceivably build space platforms large enough to support humans for a time, as long as they were content to live in an insulated bubble, and there should be plenty of humans who find bubbles challenging. The lobotomized, for example.

Already I have heard that outer space might do well for "undesirables," as Devil's Island and Alcatraz did. If we had space stations now, I imagine some administrators could solve the AIDS problem by Labor Day.

But if no sane person thinks space will be useful as a habitation for people, is there anything besides science that might justify the fantastic cost of a space program?

Sure. There are military possibilities. Among his accomplishments the president has starred in several movies and probably knows, therefore, that zapguns fired from the moon can destroy evil empires. Besides, his sympathy with those who can paw through the Bible for Armageddon scenarios has doubtless persuaded him the way to save the earth is to destroy it here and there from the planet Venus or the lost Atlantis. There is no reason the United States should enhance the likelihood of space warfare just because that's the way it is in comic books.

As for defense, if you can stop missiles from outer space you can shoot them from there. And if one superpower can do it, so can others. So it is asinine to say a defensive system in space is a peaceful enterprise.

You would think there were enough Grenadas and Libyas around to keep any Rambo busy without heading for the stars.

And while it may sound just grand to dream of a foolproof defensive system guarding us out there where God sits, nobody really thinks it will work. And if it did have the possibility of working, it would be administered by the White House -- that is, Fawn Hall trotting about in a glow of faith.

This is a troubling prospect, no matter who becomes president. It can be assumed that all future commanders in chief will be movie actors, religious nuts, charismatic columnists or Vanna White. The plain citizen has a say in where the country goes, but rarely makes his weight felt, what with the daily duty to fight traffic and the periodic obligation to drive to Ocean City, Disneyland and similar shrines -- these are our preoccupations, not the ship of state.

I am increasingly suspicious of this blather about outer space, as fantasy pap for Star Wars, as an invitation to the war industry to enlarge its wealth and power, and as a heady encouragement to little Norths still dreaming in their playpens. And does anybody doubt that space and other hallucinations now current among us are anything more than the prelude to a three-pronged political ticket: Fawn, Vanna and Tammy Bakker? Great name recognition there. They are probably unbeatable in America today