Scientists at NASA are justifiably thrilled that Voyager 1, the space probe which was launched in 1977, has been confirmed to have entered interstellar space, having continued on its million-miles-per-day journey taking it beyond the heliosphere, the bubble of charged particles in the space surrounding the Solar System.
Over the last 36 years, Voyager has traveled about 12 billion miles away from the Sun. Announcing the latest milestone in a mission that has continued far longer than anyone expected, John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator of science missions, said: “Someday humans will leave our cocoon in the solar system to explore beyond our home system. Voyager will have led the way.”
Befitting that sentiment, the theme from the original Star Trek TV show was played in the background at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I say sentiment in the hope that “someday” was supposed to signal that Grunsfeld was indulging in a childish fantasy and not making a prediction. But although I hope he didn’t mean to be taken seriously, I fear that he and his colleagues really do believe that someday human beings will venture beyond the Solar System.
Such a journey would face all sorts of technical challenges and also ethical ones. It would require the creation of space-travel human slaves. This being a multi-generational journey from which no one would return would require the initial crew to reproduce, raising children whose mission in life had been determined at conception — children who never dreamed of becoming astronauts but were simply given no other choice.
No doubt when Voyager 1 was launched, many of the NASA scientists involved in its creation were convinced that by now, in their advanced age, they would be enjoying the Jetson lifestyle and have grandchildren who were busy colonizing the Moon.
While human life and life on this planet are inextricably bound together, the visions of space travel that we have been encouraged to entertain for much of the last century, have in many ways poisoned the modern imagination.
They do so by fostering the idea that life beyond Earth would be an advance from life on Earth. Worst of all, they conjure up the possibility that if we really screw things up down here, we might find some better alternative some place else.
In reality, if it turns out that the evolutionary path which led to Homo Sapiens proves to be a dead end — due to our insatiable appetites and destructive capacities — it won’t just mean the end of humanity but also the end of life for many other species. Indeed, our “success” has already spelled doom for thousands of species that might otherwise have thrived.
Someday, the one and only human adventure into interstellar space may be a quest to recover the Golden Record on Voyager. Human culture and much of life having been wiped out, the last hope of salvaging humanity will rest in a record no one will be able to play.
If, however, in the detritus of human civilization one turntable survives, our forebears may get a chance to listen to Blind Willie Johnson sing “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” as they ponder: what the hell were those guys from NASA thinking?