If this were the world it should be, the front-page, above-the-fold headline on this and other newspapers Friday would have been the Thursday announcement that Voyager 1, a NASA spacecraft launched 36 years ago, had crossed the boundaries of our solar system, becoming mankind’s first emissary to the stars.
Of course, you may have read, heard or seen somewhere yesterday, or may yet read, hear or see something today, about this scientific milestone. But Voyager’s crossing of the heliosphere, the region beyond the reach of the solar wind marking the beginnings of interstellar space, is one of those singular achievements that deserve wide note and appreciation.
For a sense of what Voyager’s first miles in interstellar space mean, listen to Ed Stone, the mission’s chief scientist, as quoted in an online CNN story: “In leaving the heliosphere and setting sail on the cosmic seas between the stars, Voyager has joined other historic journeys of exploration: The first circumnavigation of the Earth, the first steps on the Moon,” Stone said. “That’s the kind of event this is, as we leave behind our solar bubble.”
Please understand that (we’re) not discounting the admittedly more immediate concerns around the globe and in this country, as we struggle internationally with the horrors of Islamic extremism and as we deal domestically with the question of how to provide adequate health care to all citizens.
Amid all that, though, when we have an opportunity to shift our gaze from humanity’s struggles and shortcomings to its achievements and aspirations, we should take that opportunity, if for no other reason than to remind ourselves of the great places where our imagination and initiative can take us.
Think about it. After centuries of scientific inquiry, as an end result of grappling with innumerable questions and with the answers to those questions, humankind is taking its first steps outside its own celestial neighborhood. Of course, that mere fact doesn’t negate the ignorance and the attendant suffering of other facets of the human condition. It does, though, point out that we can dream and achieve great things. And that should give us some hope that honest grappling with the quotidian quarrels of our day just might lead toward some solutions to those problems.
If you can find a minute today — or perhaps even better, tonight — walk outside, gaze into the sky and spend a minute thinking about the fact that somewhere out there, humanity’s highest aspirations are announcing themselves to the cosmos.
But if you don’t get a chance to take a moment tonight to contemplate what Voyager 1’s mission means in terms of human achievement and possibility, don’t worry too much. A few years from now, Voyager 2 — launched 16 days after Voyager 1 in 1977 and tracing a different path through the solar system, will become the second manmade object to enter interstellar space.