A few days ago, I read an article on Scientific American’s web site that was talking about the unexpected decade of service NASA has gotten from the Opportunity Rover which is still running around the surface of Mars. While this is no doubt an impressive feat, my first reaction was “a decade? Is that all you’ve got?” You see, I’m partial to a different story about NASA’s unexpected success, the story of Voyager.
The Voyager program was approved in May of 1972, about a month before I graduated from high school. A little more than more than 5 years later, we were both ready to begin our respective journeys. I started working as a computer programmer at a Burroughs manufacturing plant in Piscataway, NJ in late August 1977. Voyager 1 was launched one week later in September. As of the end of December 2013, we had both been “operating” for over 36 years.
Voyager 1 and I have both changed our missions, adapted to our circumstances if you will. I started out in pursuit of a career in Chemistry. Once convinced that that wasn’t a good idea (a story I have yet to fully share) I revised my heading, went to graduate school in business and began a career in technology. I haven’t exactly left the solar system, but the 35+ year long journey I have been on has brought me much happiness. Voyager, originally considered to be a scaled-back version of a much grander plan, has exceeded all estimates with regard to what it would accomplish and “Voyager has left the building” as it were.
On September 12, 2013, NASA announced that Voyager 1 had crossed the heliopause and entered interstellar space on August 25, 2012, making it the first manmade object to do so(1).
I won’t be checking off “first to…” things on a list, and there isn’t a team of scientists or any other ‘ists’ following my every move, waiting patiently for my next utterance. I am not aligning myself with Voyager 1 in a sense of comparison, I do so for inspiration. I like the way Voyager 1 has surprised its creators. I like the way Voyager 1 has handled change and I like the indications that Voyager 1 is going to still be working well into the future. Actually, I hope to retire from my current mission in the not-too-distant future, but I wouldn’t mind taking on a different one. However, I know something about Voyager 1 that the rocket scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) might not be aware of.
Voyager 1 was launched a couple of weeks after its sister probe Voyager 2, but Voyager 1 reached Jupiter and the edge of the Solar System first. NASA explains this by describing the different mission and the complicated trajectory of the Voyager 2 craft, but since I think Voyager 1 is a bit more like me than Voyager 2, I think I know why it was in such a hurry to put Earth in its rearview mirror – Disco. Although some say that the genre was well established before Voyager was launched, Stayin’ Alive was released in December of 1977 and Night Fever was released in February 1978. Being in constant radio contact with Earth, I just imagine that Voyager 1 couldn’t get to the edge of the Solar System fast enough. In fact, Voyager 1 is still racing away from Earth faster than any other spacecraft.
On February 17, 1998, Voyager 1 reached a distance of 69 AU from the Sun and overtook Pioneer 10 as the most distant human made object from Earth. Travelling at about 17 kilometers per second (11 mi/s) it has the fastest heliocentric recession speed of any human made object(1).
Now some might come to the defense of Disco and some might point out that Voyager 1, sophisticated as it may have been in 1977, likely knows nothing about music. I disagree. Voyager 1 is carrying with it a Golden Record that contains images, natural sounds, spoken word messages, written messages and 90 minutes of music. Included in that 90 minutes of music is a version of Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode; no Disco for Voyager. Johnny B. Goode was released almost 20 years before the Voyager probes were launched, so I don’t think it’s an accident that they are carrying a rock and roll message and not a mirrored ball where no man has gone before.
If you picked up on the Star Trek reference in the previous sentence, then you no doubt realize that Gene Rodenberry was similarly impressed with Voyager. Rodenberry suggested, in Star Trek the Motion Picture, that Voyager 1 & 2’s fictitious 6th in the series sibling would make contact with an alien civilization beyond our galaxy and one day return to Earth, albeit not to retire. It could happen, Voyager 1 is still going; as of 2007, Chuck Berry was still going; I’m still going and Disco, well Disco died.