The US space program costs billions and billions of dollars. Wikipedia puts the figure at $17.3 billion for fiscal year 2008 and that number climbs to $18.7 billion in FY10. The US Department of Education has a budget just south of $70 billion (saying nothing of the state budgets, where the bulk of education funding falls in the States).
President Obama is ordering a review of the multibillion dollar of the Nasa Constellation program planned to return humans to the moon. This program is already over budget and running well behind schedule. Same goes for the Space Shuttle replacement program, which is now expected to cost $40 billion.
Am I suggesting that we should redirect this money to education? Absolutely not! On the contrary, I think its time for another Space Race. I dug up an interesting article posted at the University of Montana highlighting the effects of the Space Race on education in the 1950s.
On October 4, 1957, with the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Soviet Union, the world entered the Space Age and the United States became quite concerned that the Soviet Union had a head start
in the space race. A year later, realizing that the support of gifted and talented mathematics and
science students was critical to national security, the United States federal government passed the
National Defense Education Act (NDEA), providing aid to education in the United States at all
levels, primarily to stimulate the advancement of education in science, mathematics, and modern
Obviously, our competitors now are a number of Asian and Eastern European nations (among others), but we are competing for much more than access to space or even to win the Cold War. This doesn't need to be about getting to the moon before China; rather, it needs to be about inspiring students and creating the utter sense of urgency we need in education to push our students and improve what we do. It should be about inspiring students and teachers to embrace math, science, and engineering education. If it takes many billions more devoted to both NASA and education, then that's a small price to pay to bring a new generation of brilliant scientists and mathematicians to the forefront of education, research, and industry.