E ach March the space community celebrates the legacy of rocket pioneer Robert Goddard, whose two-second, 12.5-meter liquid-fueled rocket launch 81 years ago changed the course of history. Goddard wrote that as a boy while pruning a cherry tree he “imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars.” We are here to turn Goddard’s vision into reality.

What separated Goddard, born 125 years ago, from the other two great rocket visionaries of his age — Hermann Oberth and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky — is that he turned theory into practice. He actually flew rockets. He was Teddy Roosevelt’s “man in the arena.”

This year, as the space age turns a half-century old, we are on the verge of a new era of space exploration. What we do remains on the edge of what is humanly possible, and we encounter our share of setbacks. But I’m excited about what we can achieve in the next 50 years if we maintain our national will to do it.

In recent speeches, I have said that I believe that if NASA were to disappear tomorrow, people would be profoundly distraught, that they would feel that our country’s best days are behind us. They would feel that we have lost something, something that matters. And yet they would not know why.

I’ve come to believe that this is so because we in the space business don’t know how to talk about what we do in the right way.

If you ask why we’re going back to the Moon and, later, beyond, you can get a variety of answers. The president, quite correctly, said we do it for purposes of scientific discovery, economic benefit and national security. And presidential science adviser Jack Marburger has said questions about space exploration come down to whether or not we want to bring the solar system within mankind’s sphere of economic influence. I think that is extraordinarily well put.

These reasons have in common the fact that they can be discussed within the circles of public policy making. They can be debated on their merits, on logical principles. They are what I call “acceptable reasons.” You can attach whatever importance you want to any of those factors. Different people will weigh some factors more and others less, but most of us would agree that they are, indeed, relevant factors.

But who in everyday life talks like that? Who talks about doing something for purposes of scientific or economic gain or national security other than in policy circles? If anyone asked Lindbergh why he crossed the Atlantic — and many did — he did not say that he personally flew the Atlantic to win the Orteig prize. His backers might have done it in part for that reason, but Lindbergh did it for other reasons.

I think we all know why people do these things. They are well-captured in many famous phrases. When Sir George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, he said, “Because it is there.” He didn’t say, “for economic gain.”

We know these reasons, which I call “real reasons.” Real reasons are intuitive and compelling to all of us, but they are not immediately logical. They are exactly the opposite of acceptable reasons, which are eminently logical but neither intuitive nor emotionally compelling. The real reasons we do things like exploring space involve competitiveness, curiosity and monument building.

Most of us want to be, both as individuals and as societies, the first, the best or the most, in at least some activity. We want to stand out. This kind of behavior is rooted in our genes. We are today the descendants of people who wanted to outperform others. Without question that can be carried to an unhealthy degree; we have all seen more wars than we would have liked. But just because this trait can be overdone, doesn’t mean that we can do without it completely. Competitiveness is rooted in the genes of successful people.

As to curiosity, who among us does not know the wonder and mystery and awe and magic of seeing something, even on television, never seen before, an experience brought back to us by a robotic space mission? And how much grander when one of our own, a representative of other human beings, is there to see it for herself? Who doesn’t know that feeling? The urge to know what’s over the next hill is one of the most common feelings we share, whatever our backgrounds.

We also like to build monuments. We want to leave something behind for the next generations, or generations to come, to show them that we were here, and to show them what we did with our time here. This is the impulse behind the great cathedrals and the pyramids. The space program is the cathedral of our time, of our civilization.

In the space business, we live up to a creed of excellence, or die from the lack of it, and we make our entire society better for the acceptance of the challenge. This is exemplified in a quote I love: “Excellence is the result of caring more than others think wise, risking more than others think safe, dreaming more than others think practical and expecting more than others think possible.”

This is our shot at making a difference in the history of world. Ultimately, we face a very simple choice: we can watch what happens, or, come what may, we can try to make a difference. I choose to try. And I’m glad so many Space News readers are doing the same.

Exploring and developing the space frontier is hard, demanding, thankless and often dangerous work. We must dedicate ourselves to it, we must respect the dedication it requires in others as in ourselves, and we must never be cynical about that dedication, lest it slip away and we consign our best years to the purview of historians.

Space exploration, scientific discovery and cutting-edge aeronautics research are today the most technically difficult things a society can undertake. The phrase by which we describe lesser tasks –“it’s not rocket science” — is funny as the punch line for a joke, but is also an implicit recognition of the fact that the enterprise in which we are engaged, is a way of life that lifts up that better self within us all — and our nation in the process.

The transition we are making from the shuttle era to one involving a new generation of spacecraft, launch and cargo vehicles, is NASA’s toughest management challenge ever. But when we have met it, we will have a better human space flight program for the money. And all of humanity will be enriched because of our efforts.

Michael Griffin is NASA administrator.