the earth. Modern cosmological models suggest that the universe is only three or four times older than the earth itself and that the universe has neither center nor edge.
Astronomy helps reveal the nature of life and its fragility. Our knowledge of the formation of the elements tells us that we are “stardust,” formed from material built up in the early seconds of the universe or in the interiors of massive stars. Chemical reactions of carbon atoms with other atoms in interstellar gas and in meteorites produce the same molecules that are the building blocks of living creatures on the earth. Looking down at the earth from orbit, we see our home as a small, fragile entity. Observing the inhospitable environments of Mars and Venus lends reality to concerns for the future of our own ecosystem.
As new instruments expand our capability to peer deeper into space, our view of the universe expands and evolves. Astronomers know that although any given interpretation may be outmoded by a new observation, the basic process of empirical inquiry is sound and leads to a better understanding of the world around us. Astronomers can offer to their fellow citizens the confidence that the universe is comprehensible.
Reports such as A Nation at Risk (NCEE, 1983), A Challenge of Numbers: People in the Mathematical Sciences (NRC, 1990a), and Physics Through the 1990s (NRC, 1986a) have called for improvements in public education at all levels, and particularly in science. Astronomy and astrophysics have an important role to play in maintaining and restoring American leadership in science and technology by raising the level of scientific literacy among the general public and students at all levels, by inspiring students to become scientists, and by training scientists for other technical careers.
Astronomical concepts are usually included as part of the physical sciences courses taken by elementary and junior high school students and occasionally appear as parts of high school curricula. Project STAR (Science Through its Astronomical Roots) is being developed at the Center for Astrophysics to provide astronomical course material for high school chemistry and physics classes. Project 2061, which aims to ensure scientific literacy among all high school graduates by the year 2061, when Halley's Comet returns, has a significant astronomical component. Astronomy is also the focus of many successful adult education courses and teacher training programs.
Formal astronomy courses probably have their greatest impact at the non-major undergraduate level. Colleges and universities with astronomy (or physics and astronomy) departments had 1.2 million undergraduates in 1988;