America’s Best Ideas: The Voyager Missions and National Parks

By Michael W. Harris

The Golden Record

A little over three years ago, I wrote a post on why I believed (and still do) that the Voyager Missions and accompanying Golden Record is one of the best things that America has ever done. Part of my fervent belief of this is that the Record presents an aspirational view of humanity and our future. The Record as a goal for us to work towards. And part of why I wrote that, in 2016, as the world was starting to spiral into Trumpian Oblivion, was that it provided a counter to that negative outlook.

You see, I am a cynical person by nature. I have a deep repository of cynicism that I thinly veil with a healthy schmeer of sarcasm. I have, outwardly, lost all belief that humanity can dig itself out of the mess that we have created for ourselves. If a Cylon asked me if I believed that humanity was “worthy of survival,” I would probably (in my cynical view) answer “no” without skipping a beat. I would probably follow up with “Burn the motherfucker down. Honestly I am surprised we haven’t done it already ourselves. Sorry to make you go to the trouble.” And before I could take it back, the missiles would be launched to the strains of “All Along the Watchtower” and “bye, Felicia.”

However, all of that is a front most days (there are some where I truly have lost all optimism). It is protection for what is a dim flame that I carry inside. A flame representing that most dangerous of all things: hope. As I have discussed elsewhere, I grew up on Star Trek and its positive view of our future, and these days Doctor Who gives me much the same view. That, yes, humanity is awful at times, even right now, but we can overcome it. We can and will do better. Doctor Who especially has some great quotes about the potential of humanity, though always with a bit of perspective. And I see a lot of myself in that character. I want to believe that it can get better, desperately so. But I guard that flickering flame so closely that I also risk smothering it.

Then I think of Voyager, all alone in space, and my beloved Rocky Mountain National Park, and my heart believes just a little bit more. And, if anything, there will always be a little part of us that will carry on because some people, somewhere, had a good idea and had the strength of character and conviction of will to make it happen.

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Me and a good friend visit the Air & Space Museum’s full-size model of the Voyager probe.

I have already spoken at length about Voyager and the Golden Record, and why it is such a beautiful artifact. How it represents an idealized vision of humanity, pointing towards who we should want to be. It is the aspirational quality of the project that has always seized my imagination and my heart.

Sure, the Pioneer probes had similar plaques on them, complete with the Pulsar Map (which if I ever get a tattoo, that will be it), but nothing quite matches the Golden Record for its vision of what we want to send out to the galaxy. That it was even considered so thoroughly is astonishing to me. It was, at best, the tertiary mission of the probes, and yet it was given a degree of care and planning befitting an entire mission unto itself.

In order of importance, Voyager’s primary mission was to get up close views of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and their many satellites. Voyager 1 got those with Jupiter and Saturn, Voyager 2 trailed and did more with the first two and then headed onto Uranus and Neptune (while 1 had an up-close visit with Titan before heading out of the Solar System). The probes’ secondary mission was to test the edges of the heliosphere, to map the edges of what can be called our Solar System, and find where Interstellar Space truly begins. This phase of the missions only ended in the 2010s.

Think about that. These probes were launched when Jimmy Carter was president, and when they crossed into the vast gulf between stars, Barack Obama was the commander-in-chief. It took that long, and they are basically travelling faster than any other human made object before or after.

And while there is still science being done by Voyager 1 and 2, over the next few years, as the power cells are slowly depleted, it will enter what is its tertiary mission, one that it has almost no chance of fulfilling, and which is represented by the Golden Record.

Neither of the Voyager probes are heading to any star system in particular. As it stands, they won’t actually pass through any planetary systems (when they launched we did not know if any planets actually existed outside of our star system for certain). The official NASA site explains this phase of the mission as, “Eventually, the Voyagers will pass other stars. In about 40,000 years, Voyager 1 will drift within 1.6 light-years (9.3 trillion miles) of AC+79 3888, a star in the constellation of Camelopardalis which is heading toward the constellation Ophiuchus. In about 40,000 years, Voyager 2 will pass 1.7 light-years (9.7 trillion miles) from the star Ross 248 and in about 296,000 years, it will pass 4.3 light-years (25 trillion miles) from Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. The Voyagers are destined—perhaps eternally—to wander the Milky Way.” It was never the mission of Voyager to establish first contact. If it had been, we would have sent out probes with a trajectory towards some of our nearest stellar neighbors. Yet, we (the Royal Human We) made the decision to assemble a humanity’s greatest hits mixtape and send it off with a wing and a prayer of being picked up in the almost limitless blackness of the cosmos in the hope that some intelligence with find it, decipher the markings, figure a way to not only play the record but also the map saying “we are here” and come pay us a visit.

What are the odds that this will happen in 100, 500, or even 1000 years? What does that say about our hope that we will still even be here to say hello? What are we leaving for those who may, against all odds, come and seek out the creators of such an object?

*          *          *

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado.

If anything does survive the demise of humanity, it will be because of the work of people whose lives and jobs are to preserve and conserve. The United States National Parks system was once called “America’s Best Idea” by historian and author Wallace Stegner, for much the same reason that I label Voyager our greatest achievement. It represents the best of us, preserving the best that our country and our world has to offer and holding it for the benefit and enjoyment of all. In essence, the idea is that the parks embody much the same philosophical space as the public “commons,” but on a much larger scale. These are spaces set aside for the use of all, not just those who can own the land, pay the members fees for access, or be lucky enough to be invited in. Imagine the Grand Canyon being privately owned and charging $100 per visitor for a day pass, not to mention with hotels and rides destroying the natural landscape. That is what the National Parks Service is preventing. That and the exploitation of minerals and fossil fuels that would ravage the land. It also works to conserve the natural beauty of the land, protecting in its current state so that generations whose parents have not even been born yet can one day enjoy it just as they did.

And this is where the National Parks and Voyager truly intersect for me. It is the ability to see past the potential benefits to only oneself and actively think about those multiple generations down the line. Further, not just those who might be related to you, but everyone within the human family. The long view of preserving and working for those not only beyond your own lifetime, but also beyond your own bloodline and nation. Sadly, right now, the only long-term planning beyond a few selected and dedicated individuals, seems to be those wanting to protect vast fortunes supposedly for their kids, and for me even that feels like more of a rationalization for tax fraud and deregulation.

However, the National Parks and those who fight to protect them every day, show a dedication to our planet and posterity that is beyond belief. It is why I have more than once purchased the yearly Parks Pass, though I really did not use it often enough. These parks are not only preserving nature and history, but also, thanks to their influence, they have inspired countless other nations and organizations to follow suit. They are an inspiration to the entire planet. Much as Voyager gave us the perspective of the “Pale Blue Dot,” the National Parks Service ensure that the dot remains something we can take pride in, even as certain groups try to tear it and the entire Department of the Interior down.

Even if I remain cynical and skeptical about our future, I remember Voyager and my beloved Rocky Mountains and try to keep the flame alive.

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Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. I call this my “god” shot.

I wrote this post in the middle of a brutal heat wave that is probably one-part normal weather cycle and ten-parts climate change. It is important to keep all things in perspective and look at macro trends, but even that says we have changed the planet.

However, nature isn’t static, and these parks we have lovingly tried to preserve will change…over the long scale of geological time. The Yellowstone Caldera will change the park (and the entire face of North America for that matter). The Colorado River will continue to change the Grand Canyon. The Rocky Mountains will grow and shrink as erosion and plate tectonics shape our planet. The parks today will not be the same parks in 100, 500, or 1000 years.

If the intelligent beings who, against all odds, find Voyager, come visit may see the national parks, but they will not be the parks as they are today. The past is the past, and what once was can never be the same again. Even if we cast it in stone, something will change, even if it is only our perspective on it. But this isn’t the point of Voyager or the National Parks. It was never fully about preserving, it was about optimism. Optimism for a potential future where we can enjoy the benefits of our preservation. And when we try to rip apart these programs, scale back the efforts of the Park Service or NASA, or worse, put them in service of a Nationalist agenda (sell off parcels to developers, gut budgets), it betrays that optimism for short sighted gains that serve the few now instead of the many later. And to me, that signals that a people have truly lost hope for their future.

I may be cynical as all get out, the flame may be flickering, but it isn’t dead yet. And to everyone I say: let’s make humanity optimistic again.

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