Against Cosmic Melancholia

COMMENTARY: The intelligence and imagination that created Voyager 1, and that has kept us in contact with our ‘most distant emissary,’ testify to the spiritual nature of human beings.

(L-R) Voyager 1 lifted off atop a Titan IIIE. Poster for Voyager 1 from 1977.
(L-R) Voyager 1 lifted off atop a Titan IIIE. Poster for Voyager 1 from 1977. (photo: NASA / Public Domain )

On Sept. 5, 1977, “Voyager 1,” built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was launched from Cape Canaveral atop a Titan IIIE rocket. It’s still going, almost 47 years later and some 15 billion miles away: humanity’s “most distant emissary,” as a British writer recently put it, continuing its mission “to boldly go” where no human artifact has gone before (to vary the most famous split infinitive in television history).

Voyager 1 has more than repaid American taxpayers the $433 million dollars it cost to build it. Its fly-bys of Jupiter, Saturn, and their moons yielded breathtaking photos that lift the spirit by illustrating the magnificence of Creation.

As it hurtled through the outer solar system and into interstellar space, Voyager 1 enlarged our understanding of that Creation by sending back a mass of scientific data that astronomers and astrophysicists may continue to receive for another decade or so, and will study long after that.

Even after Earth-bound scientists lose contact with it, however, Voyager 1 will continue to carry humanity out into the universe, as its design includes an audio-visual disk containing Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, the sounds of babies crying, messages recorded in 55 languages, and much else. (That gold-plated disk also includes the silhouette of a naked man and woman, reduced from the more explicitly detailed depiction carried by the Pioneer 10 spacecraft because of politicians’ complaints about “smut in space.” Comforting, isn’t it, to know that congressional imbecility is not a phenomenon unique to our moment?)

David Whitehouse, writing about Voyager 1 in the London-based Spectator, was awestruck by the “isolation” of this remarkable interstellar probe, which he suggested was “impossible for us truly to comprehend. Light — the fastest possible traveler — takes just over a second to reach the moon and about four hours to pass the most distant planet, Neptune. Yet to reach Voyager it takes more than twenty-two hours.” Mr. Whitehouse’s awe, alas, was mixed — one might even say, tinged — with a melancholy bordering on despair:

“It’s strange to think that it will be exploring on out into deep space long after its makers — humans — have become extinct. … Long after the pyramids have crumbled into sand and the Earth has become uninhabitable, [Voyager] will just be starting its odyssey. It will move through different constellations and spend its life far from the warmth of stars, but who knows what alien skies it might traverse during some distant eon and what alien eyes will look upon its golden disc and wonder about us. If so, Voyager 1 could be one of our last marks on the cosmos and the measure mankind is judged by.”

Judged by whom? Or what? And by what standards?

Whether or not life-forms “out there” will ever meet Voyager 1, I suggest that the very fact of this marvel of human creativity confounds despair: the despair that imagines the universe as an inexplicable accident, and that thinks of humanity as the random by-product of random, if fortuitous, cosmic biochemical processes.

The intelligence and imagination that created Voyager 1, and that has kept us in contact with our “most distant emissary,” testify to the spiritual nature of human beings: creatures possessed of a reason that insistently probes the truth of things and a will to explore what has been discovered. No merely material compound of atoms and cells could have imagined, built, and operated Voyager 1.

I confess that I have never been able to read the novels of William Faulkner. But I have read, more than once, his magnificent address on accepting the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature. Its peroration seems to me a fitting answer to the cosmic melancholy of David Whitehouse and those who, thinking about Voyager 1, are similarly doleful:

“I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny, inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure, he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

An immortal soul, the Christian would add, that images the Creator, whose handiwork is not doomed to the cold death of entropy, but rather destined for the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:10-26).