The Pale Blue Dot & Me

Last Wednesday I went with some friends to see Neil deGrasse Tyson speak at the Eisenhower Auditorium at Penn State. During his speech, Dr. Tyson showed a slide of Saturn with the Earth as the smallest of dots in the distance, and I whispered to my friend that it was like Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. She didn’t quite know what I was talking about, but that’s OK. Sometimes my fellow Liberal Artsers and I miss the sciencey stuff. I told her that I’d explain it to her later, but if you know The Pale Blue Dot, how can you describe it? “Oh, it’s a photograph of the Earth from 3 billion miles away.” That will never do. It’s much more than that, so much more.

When I got home that night, excited from the lecture and the coffee-induced high, I started to write her an email about that famous picture. I think it’s appropriate that today, 12 April 2011, 50 years to the day that Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, that I repost my letter here:

I said I would tell you about the Pale Blue Dot, but I can’t, not at least without telling its story, because that’s all it is, a dot. Nothing more than the faintest spec in a photograph taken twenty years ago.

There were heroes once. Not so long ago as to be forgotten, but it is rare that they are remembered. They fought a war in the skies, for us I guess, a war that started twenty or so years before I was born, the same distance in time from my birth as we are now from that photograph. Shepard, Grissom, Cooper, Glen. Borman and Conrad, Lovell and White. But Gagarin was first, and he flew for the other side.

The journey to the moon was a matter of national pride. Science advanced and wonderful technologies created, but first and foremost it was a propaganda war, one that we were determined not to lose and one the Soviets, we know now, had no ability to win.

We forged our sense of Superpower in these years. There wasn’t anything America couldn’t conquer. The War on Poverty, The War on Drugs, The Great Society. We even got to the moon first. Then there was Vietnam, assassinations, race riots. The society we thought we could legislate for ourselves never came to be, and the same moon we would soon visit was the sign of the Vietnamese new year, known as Tet. But in that terrible year of 1968, the Sky Heroes gave us something else. Apollo 8 traveled around the moon, the first time humans had ever been so far, had been beyond the influence of the gravity of the Earth. And not a probe, not a robot, not a satellite, but a man named William Anders looked out his window on Christmas Eve, picked up his camera, and showed us this. That night, over that distance, they read to us. “In the beginning . . .”

Yet inward we turned. I was born in September of 1971, and my brother soon after in January, 1973. There have been two moon landings in my lifetime. In his, none.

Still, we weren’t done. There was more to NASA than just the moon and propaganda. Project Viking sent probes to Mars and Mariner looked beneath the clouds of Venus. And then there was Project Voyager. Voyager was different. It had no destination, no place to go, no place to be. It was just . . . sent. There was to be a Grand Tour, of course, a few places to see on its long journey into night, but Voyager’s mission was just to see what was out there, to just go and discover on its own. And so Voyager One was launched in September of 1977, just as I was starting school.

For years there was nothing. It takes time, even at great speeds, to get where you’re going in the vastness of space. But then in 1979 we saw it up close for the first time – Jupiter. Galileo had described it to us, first saw its moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, destroying forever the idea of an Earth-centered universe where all revolves around us. We saw volcanic eruptions on Io, as alive and active as any on Earth. It was 1979 and I as a eight year old child could see with greater clarity than Cassini, the Great Red Spot. The pictures were everywhere.

Then again the next year, Saturn. We could see the atmosphere on the moon of Titan. And the rings, my word, the rings. Every year was a new discovery, every year was a new picture.

Then, nothing. The pictures stopped. Voyager was well, but its real journey into nothingness had begun. And I forgot about Voyager, and I forgot about the pictures, and time moved on, and I grew up.

1990 would be my last year of high school. I’d be graduating in June, and college would start in September. My interests had changed since I first saw the pictures. That child who wondered at moons and rings was interested in history and philosophy and language and other baubles of humanities. But in 1990, forgotten for years, Voyager could still make me stand in awe. You see, when Voyager’s mission was being planned, one of the scientists, Carl Sagan, helped to decide in what direction Voyager would go, what it would take pictures of, what it would show us. One of those pictures was to be a “Family Portrait”. After 13 years and 3 billion miles, on the very edge of what could only vaguely still be called our Solar System, Voyager would stop looking outward, turn around for a moment, look back, and take a picture of all of us, all of our planets, all of our Solar System, our home.

It’s just a picture. Some radio signals sent and decoded over space. Fuzzy at best, barely anything at all. Yet Sagan saw more, much more, than I could ever add to his words.

The Pale Blue Dot

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

“The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

There is, however, one thing more. One day, billions of years from now, the sun will have consumed all its hydrogen. Its nuclear core, fusing and burning heavier and heavier elements, expanding outward in its death cycle, will engulf the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth. What was here will all be scattered atoms in the fury of a dying star.

But Voyager will still be there, and a little bit of us, too, for Carl Sagan helped plan another part of the Voyager mission, the Golden Disc. Two discs, really. One etched with mathematical instructions on how to decode, and inscribed with the relative position of the Earth. The other disc is an analog record, also made of gold, and encoded within are the sounds of animals and people, and of the wind and the songs of whales, and of our cities and our war planes, and of people saying “Hello” in fifty-five languages, and of folk music, and Bach, and Chuck Berry playing Johnny B. Goode, and of the sound of a kiss.

The Golden Disc

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