Sometime this month, if all goes according to plan, an Atlas rocket will launch NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter into space for a short trip to the Moon. One of the most important robotic space exploration missions in years, its goal is to survey lunar resources and investigate possible landing sites to pave the way for human missions to the Moon within the next decade or so. Although it is a machine, it is, in a certain sense, a spiritual descendant of Lewis and Clark
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will spend at least a year orbiting the Moon, examining every inch of the celestial body with some of the most advanced scientific instruments ever sent into space. It will give us the most exact map ever created of the Moon, a comprehensive examination of the dangers of radiation in the lunar environment, and the most high resolution photographs ever taken of the Moon. In essence, it will provide us with a treasure trove of scientific knowledge, which is not only good in and of itself, but will prove invaluable to future human expeditions and eventually a permanent human outpost.
Thomas Jefferson was a firm believer in mankind's need to explore. As President, he dispatched several expeditions to explore the American West, of which the Lewis and Clark Expedition was the most famous. He believed in the destiny of America to spread across the North American continent, building communities where hundreds of succeeding generations could flourish under republican forms of government and Enlightenment ideals. Men like Lewis and Clark paved the way for the pioneers in covered wagons, which followed during the next century.
Jefferson would have eagerly followed the exploration of space undertaken by NASA and other national space agencies. Recognizing its importance and knowing that only government can effectively do such things, the exploration of space would have been one field where Jefferson would have unabashedly supported vibrant and active government action and would have been willing to expend government funds.
In the long-term, the exploration and colonization of space, and the bringing into our economic sphere the resources of the Solar System, is the destiny of humanity. Jefferson would certainly have approved.
UPDATE: NASA has delayed the launch of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter from June 17 to June 19 in order to attempt to launch the Space Shuttle Endeavour on Wednesday. The Shuttle had originally been planned for launch yesterday.