If it goes well, the space shuttle will signal America's return to space after an absence of almost six years -- an absence that has not gone unnoticed in the world community.

Today, man's most fundamental tool in the quest for knowledge -- basic research -- is under sharp attack. Evidence of this hostility is all around us: in the shrinking number of research grants available to our universities and in the devastating slashes that have been proposed in the NASA and National Science Foundation budgets. It shows up even in the halls of Congress where important basic research is often cynically disparaged and presented with facetious "awards" that imply that it is little more than a clever rip-off.

Similarly, many Americans greet out return to space with something less than enthusiasm. For these people, space exploration is too costly, too visionary and too far removed from such "real world" problems as hunger, disease and poverty.

Others regarded out space effort as a cosmic drag race with the Soviets. And, if the moon was the finish line in the minds of those Americans, then we won the race and could quit our space efforts.

But there was a significance to our landing on the moon that goes far beyond the satisfaction that comes from a dramatic and spectacular victory in international competition.

The success of the Apollo program gave mankind initial access to the literally infinite resources of the universe. Few Americans fully realize the extent to which the uses of space have already affected our daily lives since we achieved that initial success.

Despite the life-enhancing spin-offs from this research, despite the fact that space research and development, even in its infance, has provided the cutting edge of our technological superiority for almost 20 years, we are not pressing our advantage in space. We are all but abandoning portions of our civilian space program.

The administration's proposed NASA budgets for 1981 and 1982 will provide even less money, given inflation, than that agency had in 1969, the year Apollo 11 landed on the moon. The depressing result is that, except for the shuttle, the only new space missions that will be undertaken between now and 1986 are two that had been planned but previously deferred.

This is especially disturbing in light of the stepped-up space activities of other nations. Since the last manned American flight in 1975, there have been 21 manned Soviet flights. During that period, America remained earthbound while Soviet cosmonauts accumulated two years of spaceflight time.

The loss of our once commanding lead in space should both embarrass and frighten us. And we should be frightened because that default could some day prove literally fatal. Many experts are convinced that much Russian work aboard Salyut has been directed toward military applications of space research -- applications such as electronic surveillance and satellite interception.

In 1962, just before Wally Schirra's Mercury flight in Sigma 7, President Kennedy declared: "The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join it or not . . . It is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation that expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space."

I submit that those words are equally applicable today -- not just with respect to the space race, but also with respect to the global competition in research and development, for that competition may be the most compelling challenge of our age.