Having a childhood dream to be a NASA astronaut isn't unusual – doing something practical about it, however, certainly is. When six-year-old Coloradan Connor Johnson heard that Congress was threatening to cut NASA's funding, he started a petition on the White House We the People platform.
If a petition on We the People gets 100,000 signatures, it receives an official response from the White House, something that has obtained official statements on everything from postal service reform to using monkeys in Army training exercises to regulating gluten-free food labeling in the past.
Johnson's effort may be a bit quixotic – even if he's able to make the 100,000 signatures required by the end of the month, the odds are long that anyone in Congress will take notice and change their vote to support the space agency – but it makes a great point. Namely: the impact of NASA is far more profound than it might appear.
Wikipedia's list of spin-off technologies from NASA efforts is long and profound; when you're preparing to put people and complicated machines into the frigid void of space, you tend to discover a lot interesting things along the way. The list ranges from artificial limb technology to enriched baby food to aircraft anti-icing systems and well beyond; if we're not exploring space, we're also not exploring the limits of our Earth-bound technology, either.
Far less tangible than temperpedic foam, but far more important over the long term, is that space ultimately holds the future of the human race. At some point, the odds are good that Earth will be overcrowded, polluted, or otherwise changed to the point where life here is difficult if not impossible. Colonies on other worlds - or traveling spaceships that can sustain life for the long, long, many generations long trip to other potentially habitable worlds – may be our best bet for long-term survival.
From the short-term problem solving and tech development to the long-term future of humanity to the dreams of adventurous little girls and boys everywhere, it seems clear that NASA and other space programs yield dividends that are hard to measure. And that may be why China – one of the world's other great powers – is putting so much of its money into space exploration. There isn't an obvious payoff to sending a rover called Jade Rabbit to the moon's Bay of Rainbows but the long-term importance is profound, and there can be no doubt that a generation of Chinese kids will be inspired by its mission.
It may be that a country on the grow needs to have a dream. That the United States should keep dreaming seems to be an obvious point – it's so obvious that a six-year-old can articulate it.