With all the problems making headlines these days -- failing banks, failing automakers, and flailing legislators hard at work destroying America's health-care system (I jest, of course), you might think the last thing we need is more spending, and more arguments.

NASA begs to differ.

To the moon, Congress!
Congress spent much of this week debating the fate of President Bush's promise to return America to the moon. The so-called "Augustine Commission," headed by former Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) CEO Norman Augustine, has testified that if NASA gets $3 billion a year in added funding, it can put men back on the moon by 2020. Problem is, Augustine thinks that's $3 billion too much.

Arguing that there are "the resources available" to fund astronauts exploring space remotely or actually traveling there physically -- but not both -- Augustine calls the moon program "fatally flawed." Augustine’s committee essentially recommends writing off the $8 billion already spent as a bad investment. Not that the committee doesn’t endorse human space flight; the argument is that there’s just no money for it.

A modest proposal
NASA is bucking, and points out that its funding has been cut 20% over the past 15 years. If Congress were to commit the necessary funds for a continued push ($100 billion), NASA is sure we could make the trip. And it's possible the Augustine Commission will agree. At last report, it appeared willing to compromise by not shutting down the project completely, but slimming it down considerably. For example, rather than building two rockets, one to carry astronauts and another to carry their equipment back to the Moon separately, we could use a single Ares V rocket to make the trip -- and load everything aboard it, Jed Clampett-style.

Who wins if we go?
Space exploration is an elite club. Few companies possess the know-how to help out, and I suspect you'll recognize the bigger names:

  • Boeing (NYSE:BA) and Lockheed -- twin members of the "United Space Alliance" -- play perhaps the most high-profile roles in the program. Lockheed will construct the Orion spacecraft that will make the trip, and Boeing has been selected to produce the Ares I rocket’s upper stage and avionics.
  • Orbital Sciences (NYSE:ORB) and Alliant TechSystems (NYSE:ATK) are working on the launch abort system.
  • United Technologies (NYSE:UTX) is building the J-2X engines that will power the upper stages of the Ares I and V rockets.

More broadly though, the more resources the government commits to the space effort, the more opportunities will arise for smaller firms to participate -- companies like privately held Space Exploration (presided over by the man who brought PayPal to eBay, Elon Musk) or Blue Origin (Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos's own private garage workshop).

Whether these companies prosper, though -- and whether they ever become public so that we can profit alongside them -- may hinge on the Obama administration's decision to return to the moon, or stay home and watch Star Trek reruns instead. Or further, if NASA doesn’t decide to go to the moon, whether Congress takes the Augustine Commission’s advice to help subsidize private space-flight providers in hopes that will ultimately be the cheaper route for exploration.

Stay tuned for its decision, sometime after the Augustine Commission releases its final report later this month.

And tell us what you think about the issue in the comments section below. Can we afford to pay for a new moon landing? Can we afford not to? We report -- you decide.

Read more on the space race (redux) in:

Fool contributor Rich Smith owns shares of Boeing. Orbital Sciences is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. Amazon.com and eBay are Motley Fool Stock Advisor selections. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.