In the age of the ancient Greeks, when the world was thought to be flat and the seas and heavens inhabited by supernatural spirits and monsters, man created heroes. Ever since, in times of tragedy or great national undertaking, leaders have evoked God-like heroic figures in human form as a means of banishing fear and instilling a common purpose.

No leader of our time has more effectively employed the ancient heroic image than Ronald Reagan and at no point with more power and poignancy than after the deaths of America's space-shuttle astronauts.

All of this is understandable and probably necessary. Certainly Reagan's words, no less than Lincoln's, have helped bind the nation's wounds. His actions have made more tolerable the profound sense of national suffering over the loss of those seven smiling, confident, prototypical young Americans who embodied what people everywhere recognized as the best in the national character.

But when Reagan invokes these "newest heroes" as a means of winning political support for a further radically altered rendering of national economic priorities, it's time to separate myth from reality.

The budget that Reagan sends to Congress today calls for dramatic increases in spending for the military and the space program, all at the expense of other national needs.

I'm not about to dust off the spurious argument about "if-we-can-go-to-the- moon-why-can't-we-eliminate-poverty- on-Earth?" I do argue that this budget fundamentally weakens a critical area of American security, the nation's ability to compete economically in today's world.

If approved, his budget will further underscore one of the most significant facts of American life today: that a greater and greater percentage of this nation's research money is directly tied to defense spending. And of that increasing share going to defense, more and more is being spent on specific weapons systems rather than basic research that could spin off into commercial products.

In America today, less than 1 percent of federal research money is directed toward commercial industry. Our Japanese and German competitors allocate more than 12 times that amount.

It's estimated today that 70 percent of all federally funded research flows through military channels. That's one-third of all research and development in the United States. And that does not -- repeat, not -- include the $76 billion that will be spent on developing "Star Wars" before the decision on whether to employ that system. If Star Wars is implemented as planned, for instance, it could consume all of the electrical engineers who graduate from California universities over the next 10 years.

So what? one might ask. Didn't the space program produce tangible economic benefits -- Teflon, Velcro, advanced computer technology and the rest -- that assisted American business as well as the U.S. military? Sure. But the outpouring of basic research funds into the military has had another, and adverse, effect in recent years.

As Regis McKenna, one of the leading entrepreneurs in America's high-technology capital in California's Silicon Valley, put it last week after the shuttle disaster:

"While military spending has increased, our competitiveness in commercial and industrial markets has dramatically declined. Over the past few years, there has been a pronounced shift in our spending patterns toward military-oriented development, specifically, weapons development. Jobs are created for missile development, but no new wealth is created to cycle back into the innovative process . . .

"A weapons system, once completed, sits in a parking lot waiting for a war. It does not improve our standard of living, improve productivity or create opportunities for growth."

In the Sixties, when everything in America from city to campus to national seat of power seemed to be falling apart, one area of national endeavor personified security and success -- the space program.

While cities burned, leaders were slain and the young experienced the terrors of Vietnam, American astronauts serenely encircled the globe and then vicariously transported all of us to the moon. Eventually, money poured into the space program created a political backlash. But it never was true that we didn't attempt to strike a balance then between defense and domestic needs. Now that is true. That's not heroic. That's foolhardy.