This is the Space Age. We live in that unique period in human history when mankind is venturing beyond the familiar shores of Earth into the unknown seas of space. Yet, in concrete and conscious terms, the Space Age is just beginning to have an impact on most people's lives.
By and large, the manned space missions - Apollo, Soyuz, Skylab, the space shuttle - as well as the planetary probes - to Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn - have been media events, competing with ''I Love Lucy,'' ''the Price Is Right,'' and the Saturday Night Movie.
Apparently, when the exploration of space proved less stimulating than fiction - as it did in the latter days of Apollo and is likely to again with the shuttle - people tuned out and turned to other things.
But the awesome liftoffs, men tumbling in space, moon walks, the colorful paisley sphere of Jupiter, and the close-up views of Saturn's rings are only the surface events of the Space Age. Outer space goes much deeper.
And it's this outer space which needs academic exploring, which needs to be part of each school's curriculum.
The deeper significance of our move into space might be compared to the emergence of life from the oceans onto the land some milleniums ago.
Some obvious questions emerge:
Will terrestrial man evolve into galactic or universal man as many science fiction writers are fond of imagining?
Will we find ways to adapt, either technologically or biologically, to the profound silence of interplanetary space or the alien dirt and wind of other planets?
Will our perspective of ourselves and our world burst the narrow confines of what Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan has dubbed ''Earth chauvinism'' and take on a more cosmic perspective?
Will we meet other sentient creatures somewhere in the astronomical distances of the galaxy and learn more about the essence and commonalities of life?
Or, will the space race of the 1960s have an ending more like the race of Scott and Amundsen to the South Pole, with conflicting territorial claims and a few scattered research bases in a hostile environment?
It will be decades before the outcome is certain. But we should start formulating our global education answers today.
In subtle ways, however, that ''one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind'' is already causing a profound alchemy in human thought.
For space, in the final analysis, is context. The Apollo pictures of the cobalt blue and burnt sienna orb of Earth with its trimming of brilliant, zinc white clouds or the view of Earthrise from the stark surface of the moon or the more recent image from the Voyager spacecraft which contains both the Earth and the moon in a single frame are gradually building a new perspective.
A good case in point is the environmental movement. Many environmentalists, like Lewis Mumford, have rejected space travel as ''an extravagant feat of technological exhibitionism.''
Yet many environmental posters sport the Apollo view of our home planet, and environmental leaders are quick to evoke the concept of the finite ''Spaceship Earth'' to support their convictions that terrestrial ecosystems must be zealously protected and renewable resources developed.
The events of the space age have had a profound effect on our thinking. They have caused a major shift in intellectual thought about the basic nature of life itself.
A mere few decades ago, the origin of life was considered a cosmic accident, the result of a combination of events so astronomically rare that the chance other intelligent beings existed elsewhere in the galaxy was considered almost close to impossible.
Today, in contrast, due to almost two decades of planetary exploration, scientists believe that ''we are,'' as Bruce Murray, director of the Jet Propulsion Laborary asserts, ''the average products of solar evolution.''
Life evolved on Earth because it is a watery planet, the veteran planetologist explains. And Earth is watery simply because it formed a certain distance from the sun. ''There must be many, many watery planets in the galaxy. So there must also be many sentient beings as well,'' he argues.
''In my own mind the ultimate implication is that we will at last have a mirror by which we can look at ourselves as human beings,'' explains James Christian, a philosopher at Santa Anna College.
Besides this major intellectual shift, the Space Age has also given people a higher standard of achievement. How often have you heard, ''If we can go to the moon, why can't we . . .?''
As Norman Cousins put it, ''The message from the moon which we have flashed to far corners of this planet is that no problem need any longer be considered insoluble.''
Of course, he and others are not talking about such social problems as crime and poverty. Yet there is no gainsaying the fact that space has called upon the highest degree of human organization yet achieved.
Drs. Murray and Sagan compare it to the military while pointing out that its object is altruistic, rather than destructive. Zero-defects manufacturing and probabilistic risk analysis, for example, are specific tools that have been honed to a fine art as a result of the rigors of space exploration and are increasingly being employed in other areas of human endeavor.
Was the cost too great? Did we ''sacrifice'' to get to the moon?
A 1976 study by Chase Econometrics Associates, in defense of space expenditures, concluded that a $1 billion increase in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) budget, coupled with an equal reduction in other federal spending,would likely reduce inflation, increase employment, and increase productivity.
Further, that such an increase, sustained over 10 years, would significantly increase the gross national product, reduce consumer prices, decrease unemployment, and increase national productivity.
Before the current round of cutbacks, the entire NASA budget was only 0.8 percent of the total federal budget.
Besides general economic benefits and spin-offs, many people believe exploration in general has survival value. ''If a man takes no thought about what is distant, he will find sorrow near at hand,'' the Chinese philosopher Kung Tse (Confuscius) commented in the 6th century BC. Although he undoubtedly did not have space exploration in mind, the basic principle pertains.
There is no distinct boundary between Earth and the rest of the solar system. As one goes higher and higher above the surface the atmosphere gets thinner and thinner until it finally becomes indistinguishable with the near vacuum of space.
This is not a purely academic point. Recent findings, for instance, suggest that the so-called Cretaceous extinction, a period 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs and a large number of other species appear to have been suddenly killed off, might have been caused by extraterrestrial dust spread by an asteroid.
Even if some extraterrestrial threat does not develop, study of the solar system is helping scientists understand Earth better. As Harvard scientist Richard Goody has put it: ''To really understand Earth, we need to know what happens to other planets. The solar system is the key to Earth.''
Venus, with its torrid 900 degree F. surface temperature, has graphically pointed out the potential danger that increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels could trigger a ''runaway greenhouse'' which would drastically alter our planet's climate.
Similarly, the importance of maintaining Earth's ozone layer to protect the biosphere from harmfull ultraviolet radiation is illustrated by the arid surface of Mars.
The close-up investigation of other worlds has repeatedly demonstrated the truth of the observation of J. B. S. Haldane, that ''the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.''
Scientists with instruments on spacecraft have been surprised so often by what they have seen that the surprises have become almost routine. ''The nice thing about it is that so often we've been wrong in our anticipation of what we are going to see. So often we've looked at bodies that are totally different from anything we've ever seen before,'' explains the planetary expert Hal Mazursky of the US Geological Survey.
Yet once the initial surprise is over, scientists have managed to make sense of most of what they have seen, to the point where they wonder how they could possibly have failed to anticipate the features.
Beyond the bounds of Earth are objects and processes which could profoundly effect our conceptions of the basic nature of the physical world, a concept intimately bound to our self-conception. Observation and investigation of neutron stars, black holes, quasars, even space itself, and possibly other life forms, could and will ultimately alter our physical theories of reality.
That the study of outer space should join our school curriculums worldwide can be inferred from the enormous success of ''Cosmos,'' a TV series hosted by Dr. Sagan which originally ran in the US. The book based on the series has sold more than l.25 million around the world.
Also, avenues for public involvement in space are increasing. One such outlet is the recently founded Planetary Society. Founded by Drs. Sagan and Murray, this organization - the fastest growing of its type in the US - provides its members pictures and information from the unmanned planetary program.
The World Space Foundation is using private funds to develop a solar sail, a space propulsion system which utilizes the light of the sun for power. Private enterprise is increasingly involved in satellite communications. A group of students at the University of Colorado are directly controlling a scientific satellite. Once the space shuttle becomes operational, it will carry experiments designed by both students and commercial businesses.
It is not as ''escape'' literature that our schools should view space study. On the contrary, the exploration of space has already had and will in the future have a profound effect on human society.
Yet this is poorly recognized because space exploration is a paradigm for a major blind spot in our educational and informational systems.
Space represents a technological achievement - a complex interaction between human, machine, and social structure - which neither system addresses adequately.
Instead, we insist on clouding this and similar situations with myths and stereotypes, then proceed by our misconceptions. This is a luxury which we, as members of a highly technological society, can no longer afford.
It is a situation which our schools could do a great deal to correct. If man is ever to venture permanently beyond the protective veils of Earth, it will require a public well educated on the nature of the costs and benefits of this effort.