THERE WAS TELEVISION, of course, in Europe in the 15th century. Since there was television, there was a "Today Show." It advertised itself with the slogan, "We are in the Dark Ages. Now make light of them."

On the morning of Aug. 3, 1492, it carried the usual kind of interviews: "What and what not to tell the priest at confession" and "Why serfs shouldn't jog on empty stomachs." But between them, that morning, was something unusual. "Kit Columbus sails from Palos today," said Joanna Paulina, a nun whom the church had put in charge of the program after the beatification of St. Barbara.

Grouchy merchants all over Europe turned away to gaze at their rancid medieval butter melting into the holes of their fork-split medieval muffins. "Haven't their Most Christian Majesties something better to spend their money on?" they grumbled. "It probably all comes out of the taxes which we now pay to Castile." And their rancorous medieval wives agreed.

It is no different today with the Space Shuttle.

No matter that their children were then playing with models of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria in their filthy medieval bath water: "Sixty Minutes" the Sunday before had exposed the fact that all three ships were unseaworthy, and it was an article of faith of the church that "Sixty Minutes" was infallible. Had not Danielus Ratherasmus, a tense monk, said that Columbus could not reach the Indies?

The first flight of the Space Shuttle, two weeks from now, will be an extraordinary event. Yet where it is not just greeted with a yawn, people seem to be like jackals, hoping that it will nosedive to earth.

One ought not to have to argue, at this late hour, the importance of man's exploration of space. Both its immediate and practical results and its far-reaching if unforeseeable consequences are already and will be dramatic. They have already changed our lives, even just in the technological spinoffs. They will radically alter our concept of ourselves. In the exploration of space, we are driving very deep.

It is put very simply in NASA's own description of its mission, as prescribed by Congress, in its 223-page Program Plan, 1981-1985, which deserves anyone's study. "Space science deals with the most fundamental questions we can ask about ourselves, our origins and our destiny. Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Are we alone?"

Who does not pause at those questions, and especially at the last? It is not too much to say that, in the exploration of space, science is asking questions about God. I can even forgive George Will his occasional choice of dinner guests because he is one of the few commentators who is intellectually and even spiritually alert to the depth of the concerns to which we are reaching as we journey into space.

Again one can turn to NASA's own description of its mission. It "seeks to understand the origin and evolution of the universe." The questions to which it reaches are "at the core of human concern since the most primitive times." Those questions are exact. "What are the size, scope and structure of the universe? What is our place in it? How did it begin? Is it unchanging or does it evolve; and will it have an end?" One has only to ask: In what other program, prescribed and funded by Congress, are such questions put? Put with the real hope of finding the answers now, outside "the dirty basement windows of the atomsphere?"

But let us stay with the shuttle. It is too easy to think of it only as a toy.After all, it's a bus. But even simply as a bus, consider where it will take us.

Part of NASA's mission is its life sciences program. This program seeks, among other things, "to ensure the health, safety, well-being and effective performances of humans in space." The furtherest purpose of this program is that it will "ultimately break human dependence on earth's environment." Space will become a habitable place for us.

My own application to be on the first shuttle which will carry reporters into space is treated with a clear if affectionate lack of seriousness. Gentle references to my age, and to the fact that an open-heart patient may not be the best risk up there, leave me with no answer. Yet if I am really to be "at large," what lesser place should be my beat? I should be on that bus.

But if we are to understand what the shuttle means, there are more immediate functions to ponder. Unless David Stockman has his way, 1984 will be an astonishing year.

The exploration of space will by then be beginning to accelerate. One need not mention here every new adventure which will be started. It is enough just to say, for example, that the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh spacelabs will be launched. But among the new initiatives will be the launching of the space telescope.

This will be the first permanent observatory in space. It will be the most powerful telescope ever built. It will be put into orbit and it will be long-lived. It will be serviced by the shuttle.

If one thinks of the telescopes available to Galileo, it is no less than breathtaking to think of this telescope, 2.4 meters in diameter, traveling around in space, and again outside our dirty basement windows. It could not be put into orbit, and given its long life to do its amazing work, if a shuttle did not service it. And in 1984 also the third shuttle is meant to be available.

But there is, of course, much more that the shuttle will do. The first shuttle this year, if all goes well, will carry a large-format camera up. This camera will "provide stereoscopic, panchromatic imagery, with a resolution of approximately 10 meters." But the essential point is that all of NASA's missions -- including the scientific and the technological, including the observation of earth, of our environment and sources of energy -- cannot be carried much further without the shuttle.

The shuttle is only one element in the regular space transportation system which is now to be developed. The whole system includes the spacelabs, the shuttle and the "inertial upper stage." This last may simply if inadequately be described as a boost to the shuttle when it is already up. It will extend its range. We may think of Columbus as he gazed with his trained seaman's eye at his three vessels, adjusting their sails for their uncharted voyage and wishing for an inertial upper stage atop the rigging.

The extent and complexity of NASA's programs is barely known or understood by most people. Even if one takes only the 13 spacelabs which are supposed to be launched by 1985, each will serve one of the individual programs in NASA's several missions.

From the life sciences mission to the astrophysics mission to the earth observation mission, all affecting our immediate lives as well as man's furthest futures, it is these which the space transportation system will carry out. To imagine continuing the exploration of space with no shuttles is to imagine flying on a commercial airline with no ground crews to service its planes.

If you still are not interested in the largest questions which are being asked in space, then you can at least come down to earth with a sharp bump. Among the many missions which NASA undertakes is the development of the advanced aircraft we will use here: "to improve the usefulness, performance, speed, safety and efficiency of civil and military aircraft vehicles, and to preserve U.S. leadership in aeronautical science and technology." This program will next year begin the development of the technology, for example, needed for fire-resistant material which will reduce the dangers of aircraft crashes.

That would seem to be a program whose impact is immediate enough to us all.

And if the shuttle does indeed nosedive to earth two weeks from now? We ought not to smirk at the disaster. We ought to consider what would be one of its causes. The space program depends on the long-range development of the most sophisticated technology. It has for years now been subject to erratic funding and arbitrary cuts in its budget. It the shuttle crashes, it will be our fault.

Columbus had to go begging round the courts of a still medieval Europe to find the funding for his first journey. When he was at last given it by Isabella and Ferdinand, it cost them the same as one of their court balls. Our vision sometimes seems to be as narrow as 500 years ago.