t has been 52 years since President John F. Kennedy challenged Americans to send a man to the moon and return him safely to earth; 47 years since “Star Trek” brought us “Space: The Final Frontier”; and 36 years since Voyager 1 lifted off on its way to a fly-by of Saturn and worlds beyond. The spacecraft fulfilled its mission and exceeded it, and NASA officials announced last week that the probe has become the first craft to actually leave the solar system.
If you are seeking perspective on how long Voyager 1’s journey toward interstellar space has been, consider this: The plutonium-powered spacecraft is carrying a message from Earth to the rest of the galaxy — on a phonograph record. The 12-inch gold-plated copper disc contains sounds and images highlighting the life and culture of Earth, which leaves us hoping that if it does encounter any extraterrestrial life forms, those beings haven’t done away with their turntables like most of us earthlings have.
Space continues to hold a fascination for those of us who are bound by gravity. And news of Voyager 1’s breakthrough has been met with the kind of awe and wonder that always accompany humankind’s forays toward unknown worlds. After 36 years — it was launched the year “Star Wars” was released — and a trip that has taken it more than 111/2 billion miles from the sun, Voyager 1 has plowed through the hot plasma bubble that surrounds the planets, scientists say. That means it has escaped the sun’s influence and entered interstellar space — a vast, cold emptiness devoid of stars. Meanwhile, its twin, Voyager 2, lags about 2 billion miles behind, having taken a detour along the way to get a look at additional planets and send previously unimaginable images back to earth.
News of Voyager 1’s breakthrough — it should be noted that some scientists aren’t quite convinced the vessel has reached interstellar space — evokes memories of when the space program brought out the best in America. Throughout the 1960s, during the quest to reach the moon, the Apollo program generated a shared sense of purpose that buoyed the national psyche. The country’s commitment to exploration at that time could be found in the fact that NASA’s budget represented more than 2 percent of the federal budget for most of the decade, reaching as high as 4.4 percent in 1966. These days, NASA receives about 0.5 percent of the federal budget.
With the mothballing of the space shuttle program in 2011, the United States indicated that it has lost its will for further space exploration. While such exploration is, indeed, expensive, we should not lose sight of the fact that the benefits extend well beyond pretty pictures of planets or experiments with weightlessness. As noted on the NASA website, “The areas in which NASA-developed technologies benefit society can broadly be defined as: Health and medicine, transportation, public safety, consumer goods, environmental and agricultural resources, computer technology and industrial productivity.”
There’s no telling if or when Americans will rekindle their desire to explore The Final Frontier; goodness knows we have enough issues to deal with right here on Earth. Hopefully, someday the nation will recover the moxie and the financial stability that leads to more moon landings or a manned trip to Mars or additional probes to the far reaches of the galaxy and beyond. Until then, we will simply have to marvel as the Voyager mission goes where no man has gone before.