We need space exploration; without it, we heirs of Western civilization risk becoming a frontierless folk culture engaged in endless self-reflection. Today's Galileo spacecraft encounter with Jupiter provides exactly the kind of cultural infusion our society needs.
Our history since the Renaissance shows a strong correlation between geographic exploration and general cultural vitality, says Stephen Pyne, a history professor at Arizona State University. Pyne sees important similarities between what space exploration offers our civilization and what the exploration of the world contributed to Europe after the Middle Ages.
To properly understand the potential that awaits us, we should look at the societal impact of the first great age of discovery five centuries ago.
The Europeans' first encounter with the New World was an abrupt exposure to new geographies, new materials, new peoples, new cultures, new ideas--a virtual avalanche of new information, far more than could ever have been generated in any other way in such a short time. When this new information was brought home to Europe, it swept away many of the old certainties about what the world was like.
A good example is in the field of cartography. The great map of Fra Mauro was revered as the undisputed atlas of the world when it was published in 1459. On it, the world consisted of one great land mass, "The Island of the Earth," comprising Europe, Asia and Africa and occupying six-sevenths of the globe. The remaining one-seventh was ocean. There was no "terra incognita" and certainly no other continents or oceans; there was simply no place to put them.
Within 100 years, this arrogance had all but vanished. Most of the maps of the new age of discovery bore the legend, "All the world which has been discovered up to this time." The Europeans were now engaged in what historian Daniel Boorstin calls "negative discovery": They were coming to understand that they actually knew very little about the world around them.
The information shock occurred in many fields, bringing about a radical transformation of European civilization. Exploration and the consequent challenging of old ideas soon became highly valued. People began to feel that the future could be different from the past, that they weren't caught in an endless cycle and that they really were learning things that the ancient world couldn't have imagined. In this way, Pyne explains, geographic exploration became a crucial part of what made Western civilization dynamic. Discovery, no matter in what field, became a core value of our culture.
Seen in this light, space exploration fulfills a critical role in today's world, providing precisely the kind of information input we need at this time in history. Unlike other forms of discovery, which usually come gradually out of existing institutions of science and scholarship, the information we get from space exploration comes in great gulps. For example, during the Voyager 2 fly-by of Neptune, information was coming in so fast that one scientist compared it to "trying to drink from a fire hose."
Pyne is not alone among social scientists in his advocacy of continued space exploration. Canadian anthropologist Charles Laughlin strongly supports it, explaining that the drive to engage in geographic exploration is an important part of us, a characteristic of the way in which the higher orders of the human nervous system function. University of Hawaii anthropologist Ben Finney calls man "the exploring animal" and maintains that a withdrawal from the exploration and development of space would put the brakes on our cultural and intellectual advancement. Carl Sagan has been popularizing this thesis for years, assuring us that the human expansion into space is genetically driven, an inevitable part of the natural evolution of the universe.
Whether the drive to explore is simply a characteristic of a particular culture, as Pyne believes, or is hard-wired into the human psyche, there is no question that our civilization needs space exploration. Exploring the final frontier is important not so much for what we'll find out there but for the renewal in spirit it encourages. "Choosing to explore the solar system will not, by itself, assure us continued status as a world civilization," Pyne says. "That requires much more, a broader cultural GNP, if you will. But choosing not to explore will ensure that we will not retain that stature."
Happily, this message seems to be getting through to government. Although Galileo is one of the last of the large robotic planetary explorers, a new series of smaller, less costly spacecraft will soon be flying, giving us the thrill of extraterrestrial exploration and discovery on a regular basis. Whether human beings eventually follow the robots to these distant worlds remains to be seen. For now, with Galileo, there is a new optimism in the space community: We're back in the planetary exploration business!