The Space Age burst into popular consciousness on Oct. 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union put into orbit the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik. Ever since, space has exerted a stranglehold on the national imagination. We connect space with almost everything that is good, distinctive and uplifting about America. Our successes and setbacks in space lift and depress the national spirit disproportionately, because they serve as subconscious metaphors for larger hopes and fears.

I was 11 when Sputnik was launched. I recall being jolted by the newspaper headline on the breakfast table. How could the Soviets have beat us into space? It was unthinkable. A month later, Sputnik II went into orbit. It was six times as heavy and carried a dog, Laika. My horror was typical. "Americans reacted to these dramatic accomplishments with an alarm approaching panic," writes Brown University historian James T. Patterson in his "Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974."

If the Soviets led in space, where else might they lead? Sputnik demolished Americans' presumption of technological superiority. The "missile gap" was soon born. The Soviets (it was said) had missiles capable of hitting U.S. cities. As yet, we had nothing comparable. To this threat was added the vague fear that the Soviets might, as Patterson put it, "establish dangerous extraterrestrial military bases."

Space has also worked wonders for our spirit. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon in 1969, they did more than demonstrate that we had overtaken the Soviets. Americans see themselves as explorers -- of technology and places. We are risk-takers, doers and humanitarians. We believe in a better tomorrow. To some, these advertised traits are myths; to others, time-proven truths. Either way, they define Americans' self-identity. Somehow the space program captures them all.

The moon journey was not just a feat of technology, a hazardous adventure or the conquest of a new frontier. It was all these things and also an expression of hope. The plaque that Armstrong and Aldrin left read: "We came in peace for all mankind." To watch them bounce along the moon's surface was exhilarating, because it suggested that anything was possible. And that is what America is about.

The irony is that the great hopes and fears invested in space seem, as yet, undeserved. Of course, the "missile gap" was a fiction. "It was all a [Soviet] bluff," wrote historian Walter A. McDougall of the University of Pennsylvania in his Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the space program, ". . . The Heavens and the Earth." By 1961, he noted, the United States had more intercontinental missiles than the Soviets.

Similarly, John Kennedy decided to go to the moon partly for political reasons. He knew the project would be popular; it would also restore America's global prestige. Kennedy disregarded much scientific advice that, then as now, saw manned spaceflight as unduly risky and expensive. Unmanned flights (the argument goes) can accomplish most scientific research. This was not exciting enough for Kennedy.

The economic payoff from the investment in space has also been modest. True, space has altered people's daily lives, but usually in ways that are not fundamental. There are now roughly 250 geo-synchronous communications satellites, estimates the consulting company Futron. Television images are beamed around the globe. Millions of homes in Europe, Asia and the United States receive programming direct from satellites. We have weather satellites, navigation satellites and imaging satellites. But there would be television and weather reports without satellites. In 2001, the global market for space services (satellites, launch vehicles, earth stations) totaled $83 billion, says Scott Sacknoff of Americans, Russians, Europeans and Chinese all share the market.

The truth is that our fascination with space is fundamentally disconnected from facts about space. The fascination faded as space travel seemed to become more routine and less romantic. To some extent it was a victim of success. Only failure has reminded us how much the national psyche is tied to its fortunes. The rare tragedies are so affecting precisely because the symbolism is so powerful.

We take from these accidents a larger message that is personalized in the lost astronauts. No doubt they had their flaws, as all people do. But we see in them only their virtues. They are the sons and daughters we all want. They are smart, hardworking, dedicated, daring, idealistic, decent and heroic. In them, we see ourselves as we want to see ourselves. When they die, their deaths evoke more than personal sympathy for lives cut short and families made incomplete. We lose some of ourselves -- and our illusions.