12/05/2012 04:07 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2013

Time for Another American Leap

When Neil Armstrong passed away in August, for many people, including myself, his death marked not just the loss of a truly great American, but the end of an era. It was an era of unsurpassed ingenuity, one that didn't begin with Neil Armstrong's small step but culminated in it.

On the way to that step, through decades of learning, research, experimentation, and of course, failure, men and women around the country devoted themselves to broadening our scientific horizons. And while that moment when man landed on the moon filled our hearts with pride and inspiration, the real benefit to mankind and America went far beyond even the moon.

That era, when every child in the country could name each and every single astronaut who manned the Apollo mission, was the zenith of education and innovation in this country. Motivated by the Space Race in the 1950s and 1960s, America developed the groundwork for technologies like the Internet, which was developed as a simple and elegant way for NASA scientists and engineers to communicate as they worked in locations around the country on new space technologies.

Research from the Apollo program also led, quite directly, to the technologies that power CAT scans and MRIs, two medical innovations that now play an absolutely critical role in diagnostics but are also opening our minds to the mysteries of the brain and the way we perceive the world. Not much later, instant replay technology developed by the Apollo program was repurposed for sports broadcast, powering the Instant Replay now essential to the multi-billion dollar American sports industry. And, most recently, military technology created to train soldiers on simulated battlefields led to the 3D televisions that brighten our lives, as well as Hollywood's bottom line.

In other words, the potential of the space program is no longer just potential. America has proved beyond a doubt that serious investment in our space program yields measurable returns that range from massive economic growth to boosted educational levels to the creation of new technologies that previous generations of scientists could only dream of.

With America still facing an economic slump, now is the time to reinvest in scientific discovery, in what we used to consider an acknowledged national treasure. Right now is the time to get kids excited again about science, learning, and exploration -- the kind of excitement driven by great dreams of seeing Earth from Mars, of guiding an unmanned spacecraft onto a distant planet or asteroid, or of watching the universe unfold through a telescope capturing the beauty of events occurring in distant galaxies.

However, today's students in America's classrooms lack this enthusiasm. I visit schools on a regular basis where I've seen that students are not just unable to name a single astronaut in our space program, but could not tell you the name of the first man to be sent into space. Alongside this phenomenon, or causing it, is a marked disinterest in math, physics, chemistry, and engineering -- the very fields that were seen by previous generations, like Neil Armstrong's, as roadways to wonderment and uncharted exploration, but now take a backseat all the way up to the university level where many physics graduate programs struggle to attract students.

But blaming the students is senseless, since by definition they're waiting to be shown the way. This crucial task lies with us. The U.S. government, which was once the driving force behind science and engineering innovation in this country, funding the Apollo program with today's equivalent of $250 billion, is now pursuing the opposite track, not so much by cutting funds (which it is) but by creating a vacuum of enthusiasm for space research and exploration.

During the golden age of American space exploration, this country and its leaders looked up at the sky and didn't think "Can we do this?" but "How can we do this?" They thought of all the incredible technologies they could make, some of which would directly help them achieve their goals and others (like the embryonic Internet) that would just make the job easier.

Today, if we are to jumpstart the American economy and restore our system of education to the unparalleled standard it once held, we have to reclaim that perspective. We need to look not just to space, but at the world around us to imagine what might be created, invented, surmounted, and overcome. And then we need to pursue those goals with our full resources and with the coordinated energy that only this country knows how to muster.

There is no better way to do this than to reignite our ambition and curiosity in research and exploration of the universe around us. To put it in the words of one of humanity's greatest explorers, it's time for another leap.

Rocket City Rednecks airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on National Geographic Channel