Issue 114 |
Spring 2011

The Night Shift: A Plan B Essay

Voyager 2 traveled another 800,000 miles today.

Launched on August 20, 1977, the spacecraft is still sending data to the radio telescopes of the Deep Space Network in the Mojave desert around Goldstone. Any information dispatched today—about the solar winds that Voyager is flying through—will have taken thirteen hours to travel back 8.6 billion miles from the solar system’s outer reaches. I’m writing this at 8:00 p.m. in the east, which means that the Sun must be getting ready to set upon the radio dishes. Soon enough it will be time for whatever astronomer is still in charge of Voyager 2 to hit the Save button, or tear off the day’s printout, and call it a night here on Earth.

Observatories near Canberra and Madrid will take over as the world turns through its next dozen or so hours, but perhaps someone has to stay behind at Goldstone and keep watch on a few beeps and oscillations and blinking green lights. I think, at this increasingly late point in my life, that I wouldn’t mind being that person, the one who keeps faith in the wee hours with this fantastical, faraway old contraption. Since I was twenty-five years old, Voyager 2 has been taking the species, in the gentlest and least imperial way, toward the rest of the cosmos. To put things in something like Neil Armstrong’s famous terms—it carries no man, but it carries mankind.

Voyager 2 was launched five years after Apollo 17, the last mission to take human beings beyond Earth orbit. And yet, Voyager 2 has probably carried with it more of human personality and culture, more of the species’ story, than any of the manned spacecraft that went to the moon. The “golden record” aboard it contains pictures, as well as sounds—birdsong, Bach, Chuck Berry—designed to entice some unknown group of interstellar beings into snatching the craft and giving a listen. The ship’s primary work, long since completed, was to fly by and photograph the planets of our own solar system. It encountered Jupiter in 1979, Saturn in ’81, Uranus in ’86, and Neptune in ’89. While passing by the latter, it noticed geysers spraying out of a moon called Triton. (Yes, there’s a Voyager 1, actually launched two weeks after its twin and also still on the road, but it never got to see Uranus or Neptune and thus lost the chance of being my favorite of the two ships.)

Voyager 2 will eventually pass within a mere twenty-five trillion miles of Sirius, the sky’s brightest star, though we’ll never know it, since this not-especially-close encounter won’t occur for another 296,000 years. But the craft should continue transmitting signals, speaking to us, until maybe 2025, the year I’ll turn seventy-four. I now realize that, if I’d chosen to, I could have spent my whole adult life and career in support of its journey: hitting the Save button; tearing off the printout; being a good and faithful servant on the lowest rung of the project’s organizational chart. I’d now be about three-quarters of the way through an alternate life akin to that lived by a hauler of bricks up the Pyramids: one of anonymous but worthy labor in the service of something eternally important.

I would have no desire for promotion, and no prospect of it. I was never an exceptional student of science, let alone math. My difficult, yearlong experience of trigonometry, the only subject in which I ever earned a C, left me convinced that it was a kind of hoax, like a set of phony cave paintings. But my feelings for astronomy, formed during the days of Project Mercury, have always had an authentic, if still half-educated, fervor. The actual heavens have been a substitute for the religion from which I walked away, a stellar instead of sacramental route to revelation, smoother than the earthbound ten-commanded one I might have kept slogging along.

I hero-worshipped astronauts but had no desire to be one; I have never even learned to drive a car. And yet I have always had the sense that a piece of me was on the machines we sent through, and now beyond, the solar system. The current position of Voyager 2—trackable on the screen of my computer, the digital numbers changing by the second—is real to me: I can almost see and feel it moving, can tell you that since I started handwriting this sentence in my low-tech way, the spacecraft has silently roared another 1,400 miles through the darkness.

As preoccupations go, this one of mine may seem oddly “futuristic” for a writer who has usually been so focused on the past. Not one of my seven novels has been set in the present, let alone the future. Even Aurora 7, my book involving Scott Carpenter’s Project Mercury space flight, looked back twenty-five years in an attempt to reconstruct American life in 1962. The literary criticism I’ve written has more often than not taken me into belletristic realms where the subject matter— old letters, forgotten diaries—is gathering plain old dust, not stardust. So how does all this far-out cosmic rumination fit in? How does it not contradict everything else?

The answer seems clear to me. The farther out you go in space, the further back in time you’re traveling. Think of how long it takes light to reach us: in the daytime, our cheeks are being warmed by sunshine that spent eight minutes getting here. On February 24, 1987, the astronomer Ian Shelton, at an observatory in Chile, saw with his own eyes a star explode in the heavens—witnessing it the way one might a street-corner shooting. But he was looking at something that had happened 170,000 years ago. It had taken that long for the explosion’s light to traverse the billion billion miles to the Las Campanas Observatory. The stars we live under are not the promise of some future; they’re the literal light of the past. Our journey toward them goes in reverse, not forward.

Voyager 2’s journey may eventually bring it to one of the “exoplanets”—bodies orbiting stars the same way Earth orbits the Sun—that astronomers began discovering only in 1992, fifteen years after the spacecraft’s launch. These exoplanets are now being detected by the dozen (they probably number in the billions), and some of them may well be temperate enough to support the sort of life that would be recognizable to us. And maybe creatures on one of these spherical specks will eventually snatch Voyager 2 and extract its golden record, its letter from our world.

I won’t of course be here for that—any more than I expect still to be alive when humans set foot on Mars, something I once believed would happen before the year 2000. But I do hope to be here in 2025, when its signal at last gives out and Voyager 2 starts on its lonely way, untethered by communications with home, like a sailboat disappearing over the horizon. On the day that happens, when I’m seventy-four and Scott Carpenter is an even 100, perhaps I’ll remember to whisper “Go,” the word he long ago heard in his earphones, after his rocket rose from the launch pad.