In the spring of '27, something bright and alien flashed across the sky. A young Minnesotan [Charles Lindbergh] who seemed to have had nothing to do with his generation did a heroic thing, and for a moment people set down their glasses in country clubs and speakeasies and thought of their old best dreams. -- F. Scott Fitzgerald

AND SO IT IS with many of us and the Voyager pictures from Saturn. A momentary elevation of our sight, a halt to routine and preoccupation, a spark of the old, nearly forgotten emotion of wonder -- all evoked by strange visions sent by a robot from a planet a billion miles away.

From that great optical distance our own situation comes into focus for a second; we feel refreshed for having seen something "new" yet enduring and bigger than our own lives. The illusion may be fleeting, but it's a good one -- of a common humanity united in a single effort toward something grandly mysterious.

In a better world this would be reason enough to have an active space program. Never mind the inventory of newly discovered rings and moons, or methane atmospheres or low-density ammonia ice particles. What is involved here is something to do with a nation's character and its sense of purpose.

Still, a debate has simmered below the surface for nearly 10 years now, vague rumblings leading to the final question: Is the space program worth it? It might, after all, be better to take care of more immediate and local problems first and to save this sort of extravagence for easier times.

The mood has manifested itself in increasingly stingy NASA budgets and more criticism of that agency than it has known since the early days of exploding Vanguard rockets. NASA launched probes to every planet but one during the 1970s, but only two such missions are scheduled for the coming decade. Its Space Shuttle lies unused in a hangar, motion is arrested, politics intervenes and suddenly the future of space exploration seems uncertain, while our society circles its econoic wagons

But the space program will survive temporary setbacks because it is both essential and inevitable. It has been justified, rationalized and apologized for in many ways over the years, but rarely does anyone hit upon its real reason for being.

At first there was a sporting, often military tone to the "space race" and we had a clear destination -- the moon. We crossed the goal line, though, in 1969, and after that the public perceived NASA (wrongly) as standing around with its hands in its pockets (or ours, rather) waiting for another assignment.

Some apologies got defensive at this point, and we began hearing about how space technology contributed in a very down-to-earth, sensibly pragmatic way to the economy -- integrated circuits, Tefon and the like. A good argument, but not enough, not the real reason for having a space program. Teflon alone does not justify Voyager. We don't travel to Saturn so that our eggs won't stick to the fying pan. There must be more at stake.

Why explore the Universe? It is almost ironic that we should have to ask this question because it is almost as though we have to apologize for our highest attributes . . . we went to Mars, not because of our technology, but because of our imagination. -- Norman Cousins

If there is such a thing as a nation's frame of mind, and I think there is, then it requires an imaginatinative frontier -- a psychic outlet so that we will not fall victim to shortsightedness. This is especially true for Americans, who in 500 years have never really allowed their psyche to settle. We are the last people in the world who should question the need to explore, given our history.

What made them [the early explorers of America] do it? I wish I knew, Was it mere adventure and glory, or lust for gold or (as they all declared) a zeal to enlarge the [Kingdom of the Cross?] -- Samuel Eliot Morison

Whatever lies behind it, to deny this sense of exploration would be to chip from the national character a piece not visible, but nonetheless real. If we turn our attention completely inward and begin to take our immediate selves too seriously, we run the danger of losing perspective, and the results could be disastrous. Like "black holes" we could collapse in on ourselves and no light would escape our gravity.

Modern man is too willing to overestimate the scope of his self-knowledge. No problem arises in any area without someone immediately proposing a solution. Everything has already been named, we are never surprised or at a loss for an explanation, however shallow. This results in the claustrophobic feeling that life has been closed off and that all mysteries have been solved -- no discovery, no forward motion, just reverberation. There is nothing left to be learned, only to be implemented.

Voyager reminds us otherwise: NASA scientists, extraordinarily intelligent men, are only too ready to admit their profound ignorance. You must become an ignorant man again And see the sun again with an ignorant eye And see it clearly in the idea of it --Wallace Stevens

Voyager's pure science leads to possibility, while numbers and cold data translate into flights of the imagaination. What seems important is not the physical planet Saturn, but the idea of it.

Unfortunately, neither our society nor its economy have caught up with this great capacity for imagination. It is a frighteningly modern idea, this notion of exploring space, unsettling because it reminds us that we are changing into something as yet unknown. Clearly, this frontier won't be like those of the past. Instead of wading into new oceans like Balboa we line up to look at gray moon rocks behind museum glass, while robots do our exploring for us. It requires a pecularily modern detachment of the spirit to feel any sense of participation in this adventure. So distant and inhuman an undertaking leaves behind those who are firmly grounded in the everyday.

. . . and yet, in spite of environment, and in spite of custom, each frontier did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past, and freshness, and confidence . . . -- Frederick Jackson Turner

It is just this sense of freshness and confidence that Voyager offers. In a time when we endlessly debate whether or not the United States has "had it," here is a conspicuous American triumph. At a time when we question our national skill and ability, here is an unparalleled technical competence. Even as we worry about the inequalities among our people, here is something wholly democratic: Anyone with a TV set can share the benefits of the space program and see the Saturn pictures on the very same day as the Voyager scientists.

Far from blocking social progress, the existence of an imaginative frontier has always contributed to a more open, progressive frame of mind -- the decade of the space program's birth also became the most socially humane period this country had ever known. An imaginative frontier frees and engages the minds of artists, scientists, theologians and reformers. It forces them to rethink their methods and ideas and to make them better. Look at the list of men who lived in Europe's explosive 16th century: Da Vinci, Cervantes, Luther, Michelangelo. The "Utopia" of Thomas More and the comic vision of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" were both shaped with one eye cast on the New World.

It is important that we continue with the peaceful exploration of space. We need to go to Saturn, not only for what might be out there, but also for what remains here. For the first time in history it will be possible to appreciate what is truly human, "earthlike" and valuable. And that is certainly worth the fraction of 1 percent of the federal budget that we allot to it. We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time -- T. S. Eliot