There's little doubt that a great deal of humankind's future is tied to the exploration of space. America's government space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, has some important moments coming up that could require some sensitive handling to keep the space program going.

With the planned retirement of the workhorse space shuttle planned for 2010, NASA has to find a way to keep the International Space Station supplied with food and equipment. So the agency has announced deals with a couple of civilian companies, Orbital Sciences of Virginia and SpaceX of California.

As envisioned, SpaceX would start flying in 2010 and get as much as $1.6 billion for 12 flights. Orbital Sciences would start in 2011, pocketing $1.9 billion for eight flights.

One minor problem -- neither company has an operational spacecraft that could make deliveries to the space station. NASA's fallback position is to go with a third, as-yet-unnamed, company if one of the winning contractors fails.

There's another possibility that should be considered -- keeping the shuttles and astronauts in flying condition should they be needed, at least for a while. But it's also important, ultimately, to have the commercial sector deeply involved.

A lot of time, money and effort have been sunk into the International Space Station. It has such tremendous potential in the research area and as a platform to initiate more space exploration.

Space exploration is an important program, even a vital necessity. In these times of economic stress, it may look to many like a waste of money, but it isn't. It has a lot to do with the successful future of this country and the world.