Ask people my age about Voyager and I think most would say they've at least heard of it. Maybe they'd even remember it was a set of twin satellites that took photos of the gas giants? They might even bring up the Golden Record. Maybe I'm giving people too much credit? But after watching The Farthest - Voyager in Space I need to ask:
Do people forget how awesome Voyager was?
I know I do. Both Voyager satellites launched 10 years before I was born. Voyager 2's final image of Neptune beamed back to Earth when I was 18 months old. I've always had the luxury of comprehending the enormity of Jupiter's Great Red Spot, or seeing the shadow of Saturn on its magnificent rings. I've been blessed with data.
These enormous giants were once immeasurably distant specs of light moving among the stars. They captivated our imaginations, serving as the pillars of early religion and inspiring the names of all seven days - names we still use today.*
Voyager happened at the right time. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory calculated a rare alignment of the planets favorable for a fly-by mission. How rare was it? The last time an alignment was this ideal, Thomas Jefferson was our nation's president.
With an audacious plan, NASA built two small bus-sized satellites designed to take photographs and collect data of the gas giants. Each encounter would last several weeks, followed by a slingshot to the next alien world using gravitational assist, eventually slipping beyond our solar system at a speed of 10 miles per second.
Voyager 2 launched first. As it approached its initial target, the images poured in. Early on, it was a small dot on a screen. Faster and faster, the details emerged - swirling stripes and tumultuous storms. Finally, we arrived at the king of planets. Our Roman god.
Voyager 1 left Earth a few months later. Using a shorter, faster trajectory, it zipped past Voyager 2 to study one of Saturn's moons. Titan. The reason being Titan's surface was believed to be similar to that of an early Earth's and we could learn a lot about ourselves from this distant moon. Despite the scientific intent of studying Titan, what we remember most was experiencing the grandeur of Saturn's rings up close for the first time in human history. Cosmic dust dancing endlessly in orbit and we had courtside seats.
Brevity is impossible when describing the scientific significance of this mission. Writing the details would take weeks and who the hell wants to read that. After all, this isn't a scientific article. It's a love letter to Voyager.
I'll leave this blog with one final thought.
At the end of Voyager 1's orbit around Titan, the illustrious Carl Sagan asked the satellite for one last job before taking off for interstellar space. Turn around and take a picture of Earth. An asinine request in nature because, at 4 billion miles away, Earth is just a small spec of light. But you don't tell Carl Sagan no. The command was sent and the photo was snapped.
What came back served zero scientific purpose. But rather a poetic reminder of how far we've come, yet how far we still have to go.
On a day like today, where the news is all too familiar, it's a reminder of Voyager's most significant legacy.
That's us. One single pixel. A pale blue dot suspended in a sunbeam.
I write the words I'm too uncomfortable to say.