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Our Incredible Shrinking Curiosity

But what about Voyager 1 and 2, which scientists say can probably keep operating until 2020? What good are they? Sure, their instruments have sent back 5 trillion bits of data and 80,000 pictures, including spectacular close-ups of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune and astonishing details from various moons -- 22 of which were previously undiscovered. Yes, they've been detecting the impacts of solar flares at the very edge of the sun's influence and are sensing for the first time what the rest of the universe is made of. But how in the world are we going to take that to the bank?

Well, maybe we won't. But that raises the second, less practical -- yet arguably more important -- reason to support such endeavors: Because our understanding of the world and our support of the quest for knowledge for knowledge's sake is a core measure of our success as a civilization. Our grasp, however tentative, of what we are and where we fit in the cosmos should be a source of pride to all of us. Our scientific achievements are a measure of ourselves that our children can honor and build upon.

Sights of the unseen: Voyager 1, which has traveled farther than any other spacecraft, sent back pictures of the dark side of Saturn, top, and of an eruption of Loki, a volcano on Jupiter's moon Io, inset left. Voyager 2 has captured Neptune's moon Triton, inset right. The two probes have discovered 22 moons at four planets. Today, the Voyager mission has a full-time staff of 10. Voyager signals take 12 hours to reach Earth. (Nasa Images ) Corbis)

_____Trends in Basic Research_____
This chart shows the fiscal years 1975-2006, in billions of constant FY 2005 dollars.

What happened to the unbridled and fearless thirst for knowledge that inspired us, as a species and as a nation, to hurl those Voyager probes free of the physical and psychological gravity of our little world? What happened to the trait that, according to Mr. Spock, was the driving force behind Veeger's immense accumulation of knowledge: "Insatiable curiosity."

Crouched today in a defensive posture, we are suffering from a lack of confidence and a shriveled sense of the optimism that once urged us to reach boldly into the unknown. Equally important, we seem to have forgotten that many good things come just from being open to them, without a formed idea of what they are or how they should come out. We are losing, in short, one of the oldest traditions in science: to simply observe, almost monk-like, with an open mind and without a plan.

Twenty years ago, I heard a recording of astronaut Rusty Schweickart that, more than anything I have since heard or read, brought this truth home to me. Schweickart described a spacewalk he once took while orbiting the Earth. He was clipped to a tether, floating in space, and his job was to take pictures. But the camera had malfunctioned, giving him a rare few minutes with nothing to do while Mission Control tried to figure out what was wrong. And so for the first time, he actually took in -- on a personal and emotional level -- the almost incomprehensible reality of where he was: in outer space, on the end of a rope, the farthest human being from Earth.

At that moment he had an epiphany about what an immense privilege it was for him to be there -- and what a huge responsibility he carried to report back to the world what he was seeing and feeling. So he looked. And he listened. He tried to understand. He gazed down on the brilliant green and blue marble that was home and appreciated that everything he had ever known -- all art, all history, all human emotion -- was just a tiny part of a greater universe yet to be known. He committed himself to inspiring others to cherish that planet and pursue that unknown.

Today the Voyager spacecrafts are giving us an even longer view, sending us the first snapshots of our solar system from the outside in. Are we too busy, scared or broke to listen? Or will we look back at the universe with the humility that knows there is still something to learn, the curiosity to pursue it and the commitment to make some good of it?

Author's e-mail: weissr@washpost.com

Rick Weiss is a science writer for The Washington Post.

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