The Best In Us is Out There
Every so often I spot in the news two old friends that I’ve never met. How and where I hear about them changes over the years, but the captivation at their mention never subsides. I’ll never meet them in person; nobody born after 1977 ever can, because these friends are racing through space, away from the Earth, on a deliberately one-way trip.
Their names are Voyager 1 and 2, the space probes launched in 1977. Their mission is epic: to visit the planets of our solar system, to breach the point in space where interstellar space begins, and to carry word of our presence well beyond our existence.
Children of Earth
Space has always been a big deal for me, with rockets and stars in my eyes since before I can remember. My parents will vouch for this. Any mention of astronomy or space travel in the news held me entirely, and I’d demand total silence from the family until the piece played out. Clipped newspaper columns and pilfered special inserts from National Geographic magazines were read and re-read until surpassed by books and magazines.
In those years a mention of the Voyager probes was never far away. Across weeks and months of normal life, they’d drop back into media consciousness with dispatches that transformed bright specks of light in the sky into full-blown worlds.
In ’81 the University of Waterloo, where I’d eventually attend, featured a collection of photos sent back from the Voyager flybys of Jupiter and Saturn. Though completely unfamiliar with the university, she drove me there on a cloudy Wednesday and walked with me from point to point for over an hour, looking for the Earth Sciences building. We found it, the doors open and the hallways kind of dark. But there were the images, framed under glass and in a brilliant colour that newspapers couldn’t show and the TV wouldn’t show for more than a couple seconds. We were there for at least a half hour, maybe more.
Mom was curious for a bit but her interest passed quickly. Nonetheless, she stood and waited while I couldn’t stop looking. She didn’t hurry me in the slightest, content to let me take in as much as I could. We got some lunch, and as we drove home I talked about Saturn and Jupiter all the way. She just listened. That’s the kind of person she is. What Voyager 1 and 2 sent back created a bridge between childhood wonder and a mother’s love and let them stand together in a single, irreplaceable moment. But that’s what great things do, they spin off profound moments as casually as we leave behind footprints.
When I entered my teenage years and began to pull away from the familiarity of home and parents, as teenagers do, Voyagers 1 and 2 parted paths. Voyager 1 broke away from the lines that trace the planets’ paths in diagrams, to race for the edge of the solar system. With its twin poised to take the prize of the first human-made object to go into interstellar space, Voyager 2 settled into a slower path that would send it close to Uranus and Neptune. For taking that route, Voyager 2 has always been my favourite of the twins.
While I listened to 80s rock and worried about my hair, the probes hurtled outward at some 17km/second, unblinking and constant in the midst of a great lonliness, punctuated by the almost unimaginable spectacle of massive planets.
I don’t remember much of the Uranus encounter, but my memory of the 1989 Voyager 2 encounter with Neptune is as sharp as can be. The images were not only better, but our local cable provider dedicated an upper channel to a live feed of images and marginal data readings from NASA. I sat with friends in a basement for hours on end, hiding from summer heat and watching and talking about being among the first human eyes to see a titan of the sky in such detail. We were standing on the fine-tipped point of an unlikely present, seeing what thousands of generations before us could have only wondered. How could the future not feel like everything happening all at once, with still greater things to come.
And Then, Fifteen Years Went By
With the planets behind them, both Voyagers are pushing into interstellar space. In 2005, September 23 to be exact, Voyager 1 did just that, and became our first footstep into the greater Milky Way. Looking back, they had changed the way we saw our part of the galaxy, transforming centuries of human wonder into detail visions that are now iconic.
Mere steps into a vast unknown, their reports are fewer and the science they describe more abstract. Consequently the coverage of those reports is as likely to be about the planning and care that NASA engineers devote to maintaining the probes as it is about the discoveries.
Meticulous Love Against Absurdist Odds
The voices of Voyagers 1 and 2 get a bit weaker every year, and so we here on Earth learn to listen better. Indeed, everything done here for the probes must be done better all the time. Since the probes left Earth, our technologies have advanced considerably, but theirs is all but locked into what was available in the 1960s.
Nothing is frivolous to the NASA engineers who care for them. Every bit of fuel spent on maneuvers, every turn of the camera, every byte of software code sent is meticulously decided.
It’s hard for us to really grasp this. We invoke hundreds of millions of dollars worth of infrastructure to pay for items less than a couple bucks with a debit card or to joke around by text message. If a call is dropped or a program crashes, we just try again. Every attempt is almost disposable. Not so for the Voyager teams.
When problems occur, engineers spend great energy composing a solution, then send the instructions on invisible waves. They wait for more than a day to get a response. The travel time for a one-way message to Voyager is now about 13hrs. Can there be anything in science that is closer than this to prayer?
Maybe. The Voyager Golden Records are like prayers, devotions sent out without any promise of being heard. They are gold-plated phonograph records with content curated by Carl Sagan, carrying images and audio samples for any intelligent being who might find them. The record cover has an etched diagram that shows the location of Earth relative to various pulsars, pictographic instructions for how to play the album, and an atomic basis for timekeeping. All the pieces are there, waiting for an intelligence just close enough to ours to perceive them as something to be deciphered, and strong enough to do the work of deciphering.
But those records will last, quite likely longer than humanity itself.
The record is constructed of gold-plated copper. There is an ultra-pure sample of the isotope uranium-238 electroplated on the record’s cover. Uranium-238 has a half-life of 4.51 billion years.
It would be beyond the odds for any alien to find the Voyager records, moreso to decode them, and even moreso to have a brain structure that perceives things close enough to the way we do so that the information they contain would be sensible. It’s unlikely that any alien intelligence would hear music as we do, though the sounds from nature may be appreciable to them. Sagan must have known this. As the ultimate Hail Mary throw, the brain waves of his wife were added to the data on the records. Maybe aliens would be able to reconstuct enough of a brain simulation to model the perceptions that we are trying to convey.
It’s a ridiculously unlikely scenario but we somehow know it’s worth trying.
And with each passing year, Voyager’s age shows a little bit more. Voyager 2 recently started to send back gibberish data, as if it’s fallen into a bout of senility. Its caretakers, 13 billion kilometers away, will do what they always do. Study the problem, craft a solution, then send it out on invisible waves. Ingenuity from afar, with not a little bit of hope. Eventually, neither Voyager will have the energy to do anything, its batteries too spent to operate any instrument by 2025. Even after that point, it will carry the dreams that sent it aloft.
The Best of Us
As of yesterday, Voyager 1 is 15 hrs 37 mins 08 secs of light-travel time from Earth, about 17 billion miles away. I learned this from Twitter, something not imagined built on something barely invented when Voyager left Earth. Only government and industry could afford a computer of the sort that Voyager had when it left us, and now my pocket phone could simulate hundreds of those computers at the same time. Across that distance, the connection with my childhood friends can overwhelm me.
What voyager embodies is so much of the best of us.
- Innovation with precious few resources
- Working together for an idea that knows no politics
- Naive and childlike curiosity and hope, even against absurdly unlikely odds
- The meticulous love and care for something that cannot love us back
- The capacity to inspire across time and space without ever needing recognition or reward
For only a little less time than I’ve been on Earth, they’ve been out there for us all.
All images from NASA and Wikipedia