The year 1977 was a big year for me. I was seven years old. Two things happened that year that captured my imagination. First, Star Wars hit the big screen. My dad took me to see it in June of that summer, shortly after it opened. The movie had not yet become a blockbuster. The summer was early. By the end of August, the future of cinema would be changed forever.
The other great event of ’77 was the the launching of the Voyager space probes. The Voyager probes (there were two of them) were designed to explore our solar system and whatever lay beyond. NASA figured out a way to use the alignment of the planets to basically fling these two satellites past the planets and out into the unknown, sort of like twirling a ball around your head on a string and then letting go. Using the most sophisticated technology at the time (including a fancy eight-track tape player), the probes have spent the last 35 years reporting data and sending back grainy pictures of planets Saturn, Jupiter, Neptune, and some of the related moons. Not bad for our first attempt at planetary photography. Given the advances in technology over the past four decades, we’d probably do better with a few iPhones strapped to the probe , but we did the best we could with what we had.
At this point, one of the Voyager probes is about to be the first human-made object to leave the solar system. It will enter a rough patch of space where the solar winds of the sun no longer push back the harsh currents of deep space. Nobody is quite sure what will happen, other than that the probe will be swept along, further into deep space, and continue to send back periodic reports until its battery dies. Scientists aren’t sure when that will happen, but they think old Voyager has another 15 years of life left in her. Then she goes dark, and will tumble through space as a piece of frozen debris.
Even so, she still sends a message.
On both probes NASA attached a “Golden Record” (this was the seventies, after all) with basic information about our solar system and planet, little drawings of what we humans look like, and recordings of Earth sounds including animals, greetings in dozens of languages, and ….. music.
Though the message was designed by NASA scientists (with the help of Carl Sagan), I’m struck by the fact that our interstellar greeting card contains not only quantitative data and empirical observations, but also music. It’s a great testament about the very nature of our humanity – that what defines us as a species is not just metrics and equations but rather our intellectual achievements and creative capacity. The Golden Record sends a message that there is more to us humans than just what’s on the outside. We are intellectual beings. Passionate beings. Creative beings. We make music, and art, and literature. In short, there is a civilization here, on Earth, and we send our greetings.
Sagan wrote years ago that when Voyager leaves our solar system and goes dark, it will hurl through space for about 40,000 years before it gets close to another solar system. Who knows what the human race, our civilization, will look like then. Who knows if anyone, any being, will ever see the Voyager again. But should it be found, it would tell of a people who were scientifically advanced enough to build a deep-space probe. Creative enough to have music and art. And had faith enough to hope that they were not alone in the galaxy.
The cenotaph for a civilization lost a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.