Running on less combined power than a home microwave, the Voyager probes were arguably some of the biggest scientific successes NASA ever had. (Fanboys like me have to concede, alas, that while the Apollo missions did conduct some science, it was about as intentional as the nutrition in a McDonald’s value meal.) They made discoveries that fundamentally changed our understanding of the solar system, from finding Jupiter’s rings and the volcanoes of Io, to the earliest evidence of a vast ice-covered ocean on Europa. And that was just in the Jupiter system: Both Voyagers would go on to Saturn, and Voyager 2 would go on to Uranus and Neptune.
And after world-changing scientific victories, infinite darkness: Voyager 1 has been on a long, long journey away from the warmth of this sun since it visited Saturn’s moon Titan in 1980. In 1990, six billion kilometres from Earth, Carl Sagan asked NASA to have the probe turn around and take a picture of home. Sagan called the resulting photo of Earth the “Pale Blue Dot,” and later wrote about all of human history happening on “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” Ever since the Earthrise photo shot from Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve 1968, the space program has known how to make us all appear tiny and insignificant in the universe, and vitally important to each other.
So the news this week that Voyager 1 “entered interstellar space” in August 2012 (the data is only being confirmed now) is just one more scientific milestone for a pair of missions that have racked up many more. It’s also a bittersweet reminder of what it must have been like to push back the frontiers of human knowledge in an era when we were doing a lot of that: The space race may have been more an international dick-measuring contest than anything else, but in the billions of dollars that were spent in competition, the mere millions that real science needed was the equivalent of change found in the sofa cushions.
That era came to an end not because of the end of the Apollo program and a subsequent turn away from the space program, but because of what James Van Allen called “the slaughter of the innocents”: The cancellation of scientific missions to feed the budgetary black hole that was the Space Shuttle program of the 1970s and 1980s. It was exactly as NASA was turning away from true space exploration to the development of an absurdly expensive space bus that space science took its greatest beatings, from which it wouldn’t recover from for decades. Van Allen and other scientists learned the lesson that crewed space exploration kills valuable science, but the reverse is arguably more accurate: If you want a budget for honest science, you also need a space program that’s doing compelling, visible work.
Which, to put it bluntly, nobody has right now. The Americans won’t have a human-safe rocket until 2021, and that’s assuming everything goes right. The most dynamic and exciting space program anywhere is arguably run by Elon Musk (who doesn’t just use his rockets to scare cattle), but Musk has had a hell of a time just winning contracts to resupply the International Space Station, and it’s not clear NASA is going to trust a relative newcomer with one of their expensive science missions.
So farewell, Voyager 1. You and your sibling saw more of the solar system than any human ever has—and, as things stand now, probably ever will.