Last week, shortly after a jovial President Reagan maneuvered into the White House under his own power, a pair of flinty American astronauts blasted into the heavens. Both performances went flawlessly, much to the pleasure of many tax-paying Americans who saw it all as fireworks and the Fourth of July. Yet other Americans, Americans more likely to be drawn from our elites than from the bleacher seats, depreciated the hoopla and fretted. Consider the costy, they repined. Consider the vagueness of purpose. Consider the feelings of the Russians.

These dyspeptic Americans have had a very difficult time of it in recent months. In fact, they have been gloomy for years. With every sunup, they are reminded that there will follow a sundown. When informed of an American achievement, they wince and listen for the crack of doom. They fret over the quality of life and mental health. To these people, Ronald Reagan's amiable presence is a source of profound concern. So is the space program. They put their trust and as much of the national largess as possible into the hands of welfare specialists and social workers. There are two Americas here: the first outgoing and optimistic, the second introspective and worried. h

Ronald Reagan does not worry, at least not unduly. Take the morning of the space shuttle's liftoff: He sleeps soundly until 10 minutes before its departure and then pads off to his television to marvel at the stupendous launch. He enjoys the show immensely and declares "we are the first and we are the best and we are so because we are free." All that seems to trouble him is that someone might filute his tax cuts. He is debonaire, but he is not distracted from serious matters. In this month of April, who can doubt that tax cuts are serious matters?

Astronauts Young and Crippen are cut from similar cloth. They executed a difficult task with grace and competence. They climbed into space, on a rocket still untried. After some 800,000 nautical miles, they burst back into Earth's atmosphere and guided the Columbia to a runway landing -- the first of its kind. They had, as Tom Wolfe would observe, "the right stuff," and not once did they assail us with the bizarre oratory of the New Age, the personal confessions, the embarrassing auto-psychologizing, the inane gibbering about how one's life is now changed or how one is growing and experiencing. Phew! What if Young and Crippen had been employees of the Department of Health and Human Services rather than NASA? What if they had been sent up on grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities? Their press conference might still be going on, and there would not be a dry eye in the house.

Last week, the fretters were thrust back into the shadows. They had already been grousing about President Reagan's stay in the hospital. Some murmured that hospital officials had misled them about the president's condition. Others warned that the Reagan administration was losing momentum -- as though that would trouble them. One fussbudget in New York magazine seemed to see the whole thing as a colossal public relations stunt. Now he warned "we are learning who really wields influence in the Reagan administration, who can cut it when the chips are down, and how far the president's men will go to protect the president's image." Could the George Washington University Hospital Caper be our next Watergate?

Some days later, as Columbia orbited above, a similar sour note could be detected down below. True, some of television's talking heads were properly elated. But others were troubled; they called in NASA's critics, some of whom seemed to see NASA as a space-age Tammany Hall, cleverly skimming off boodle and putting it to its own nefarious uses. Once again we heard the old lament: Why could these funds not be spent here on Earth to save our cities and to turn our poor people into upright members of the bourgeoisie?

The answer, of course, is that we do not know how to save the cities or how to turn our poor people into upright members of the bourgeoisie. We now spend something like $200 billion a year on these things. In 1979, according to sociologist-economist George Gilder, the average welfare family of four received nearly $18,000 in subsidies, yet these subsidies have only aggravated the problems they were designed to ease: unemployment, family breakup and dependency. The space shuttle program cost something like $10 billion over a period just short of a decade. Generally speaking, it was a glorious success. If the NASA programs had been as successful as our welfare programs, hundreds of rockets and dozens of astronauts would now be buried beneath the waters of the Atlantic -- and those would be from the successful missions. The others would have blown up on their launching pads.

Last week, then, as a bad one for the fretters. But for the rest of us it was grand. It called for celebration.

Welcome back to the White House, Mr. President.

Welcome back to Earth, Commander Young and Captain Crippen.

The next time the Columbia goes up, let us have a brass band stowed away in its cargo bay. And when those cargo bay doors are opened, let us have some Sousa under the stars.