Reawakened periodically 35 years into a sluicing and eternal languor, the twin Voyager spacecraft still send carefully coded and modulated letters from the void. Their beglamored creators, in contrast, ask only questions in return.
Where are you? Where are you? What do you see? Such is the lot of a species able to ask more of itself than either its circumstances or technology can deliver.
In a particularly inspired piece of prose comparing the craft to the Easter Island monoliths, Matthew Battles had this to say last week about Voyager 1, which will finally sail beyond the solar wind in the next year and so become the first object formed by human hands to enter the interstellar medium.
With the Voyager probes, our exoarchaeological traces now exceed the solar system’s footprint. Indeed, an archaeologist might properly interpret Voyager as a votive offering: the token of a wish to find ourselves companioned in the cosmos, offered to the void ex voto without expectation of return....
This prompts a question: what story will future xenoarchaeologists glean from our spacefaring artifacts? In the space age, we thought them the foundation stones of our future spacefaring civilization; increasingly, they seem like the moai of Easter Island—votive offerings, erected in desperate hope on the only shores we will ever know.
"Those shores," our shores, will eventually disappear too, of course. Although it may have long ceased working, in this animated video, linked by Battles, a silent and orphaned Voyager 1 watches a star (ours?) go nova.
Others put aside existential questions, comforted by the nature of these explorers' missions. Some time ago New York Times science journalist Dennis Overbye reviewed the book, "Flyby," a history of the two craft and their Golden Records by Stephen Pyne. Pyne, as Overbye writes, clearly differentiates this exploration from others in a way that I find moving. I hope you do as well:
This book blooms with such glorious rushes of exalted prose that I was dog-earing almost every page until I gave up.... Pyne writes that Voyager was 'a modernist machine loosed onto the cosmos. The Voyagers would not be blinded by gold or the mirage of fame. They would not abandon wife or child, or enslave unwary indigenes. They could not despair, could not be crippled by loneliness, could not fight for the cross or suffer for science, would not know epiphanies or endure tropical fevers. They would lay no claims, issue no proclamations of sovereignty, raise no toasts to king or republic, sign no treaties of trade or military alliance, nor send out reconnaissance parties to lay out routes for folk migration. The Voyagers confronted no Other, or even life.'
On the issue of exploration in general, one of my absolute favorite videos is of the planetary scientist Nathalie Cabrol, who, when interviewed about her choice to study other worlds, links exploration to our very survival in the following bracing sentences.
Stying put means death! It is true physically, it is true spiritually and it is true intellectually.
Watch the video. I dare you not to applaud at the end.
As for the twin craft themselves, when they are no longer able to communicate using their radios, they will record 62,500 kilobytes of date for transmission "at another time" before taking our questions with them into the endless quiet.