As Voyager One leaves our solar system, Dick Skellington reflects on change and hope in a turbulent world.
In 1977 a workhorse space probe was launched. As you read this Voyager 1 is leaving our solar system. It will soon enter the deep space of our Milky Way galaxy, reaching for the stars. The space craft is over 11 billion miles from our Sun and is now nearing interstellar space. Soon it will negotiate the dangerous turbulent bubble at the very periphery of our solar system. Once through astronomers expect the craft, launched originally to send back information and photographs of Jupiter and Saturn and their moons, will reach a calmer environment. This is an amazing achievement for an instrument that boasts only 68 kilobytes of computer memory. Today's iPad is 100,000 times more powerful. And, Apple Inc, yes, you've guessed, was first established in 1977, the year of the first space walk by a human being.
You may have seen Voyager's marvellous image of the earth, taken on February 1st, 1990 which shows our tiny planet home as a pale blue dot. Voyager took the image when our Earth was 4 billion miles away. Do take a look at how insignificant we are. The stunning image prompted the late astrophysicist Carl Sagan to observe, memorably, in 1994:
'From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand'.
Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, 1997 reprint, pp. xv–xvi
Voyager has done much to inspire the human imagination, redefine our science, as it did Carl's. Its original aim was to investigate the climates of Jupiter (its big red spot) and Saturn (it's astonishing complex rings) and to explore new worlds, the moons of these vast gas giants. It has beamed back to Earth amazing images of volcanoes on Io, Europa's frozen oceans, and startling evidence of the possibility of primitive life on Saturn's moon, Titan.
Voyager is now so far from us it takes 17 hours for its radio signal to reach our planet. The cameras are now switched off but the craft still has working instruments which study magnetic fields, cosmic rays, and charged particles from the sun called the solar wind. Famously the craft, about the size of a small car, contains gold plated discs containing multi-lingual greetings, music and pictures, and a guide for intelligent discoverers in some future time so they can identify precisely where our pale blue dot is situated in the vastness of the Universe. Voyager has enough nuclear fuel to last until around 2020; by then it will have left our solar system for good. So far the mission has cost $3.7 billion in today's money. Money well spent, just for the photograph.
How has our pale blue dot changed since 1977? Certainly the years have reinforced the truism that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat its mistakes. The Berlin Wall has fallen, but there is a new wall separating Palestinians from their Homeland. In 1977 USA's President Carter pleaded to the UN for a Palestinian homeland to be established, something which the Palestinians still seek after 35 years of further bloodshed and oppression. Beyond the UK, 1977 saw abortion legalised in Italy, President Carter pardon Vietnam draft evaders in the USA, and riots in South Africa. It also saw Visa launch its first credit card and the World Health Organisation (WHO) announce the eradication of smallpox.
The Cold War may be now be over but there are new divisions and conflicts, fuelled by religious intolerance and dogma, more so in a post 9/11 world where state terrorism and individual terrorism coexist, and of course war is a human constant, as we further imperil the survival of humanity, and the future of the pale blue dot we inhabit.
The headline quotation from the Star Trek series is believed to have been taken from a White House booklet published in 1958 to foster support for a space race: 'The first of these factors is the compelling urge of man to explore and to discover to explore and to discover, the thrust of curiosity that leads men to try to go where no one has gone before'.
One thing that has changed is greater awareness of the kind of careless sexist language used in the headline for this article. Why, if a petition this year to finally put the Sun's page three girls to bed is successful, we will be spared that further sexist distraction.
Looking at what happened in the UK in 1977 there are parallels with today. The more things change the more they stay the same, so they say. For example, in 1977, the Labour Government announced plans for referenda on devolution for Scotland, and there were tentative discussions about possible independence. 1977 saw the Queen's Silver Jubilee; this year her Diamond celebrations. There were huge cuts to the defence budget as there are today. The Government and then Liberal Party established an agreement on economic recovery (austerity anyone?), and Sir Freddie Laker established the first low cost airline. And, last of all in these simple reflections, the prospect of Gove Levels might herald a return to the kind of elitism we tried so hard to erode way back in 1977.
As Voyager 1 leaves our solar system this is a time for all humanity to reflect, and contemplate Carl Sagan's hymn to the human spirit, and, above all, to remember his warning: 'In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves'.
Find out more:
Dick Skellington 11 October 2012
The views expressed in this post, as in all posts on Society Matters, are the views of the author, not The Open University.
Cartoon by Gary Edwards