I was recently asked to recommend a space program for a "greatest achievement" award in the area of aeronautics or astronautics. I was given a list of four programs, including NASA's Deep Space Network and Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration, Orbital Science's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, and Voyager. It was a no-brainer, really. How could you not go with Voyager? I mean, for the first time in the 4.5 billion-year history of our planet and the roughly 2 million-year-old human species, something we have conceived of and created has traveled beyond our solar system.
That is a mind-boggling achievement for Earth and humanity... perhaps only surpassed by the six landings on the Moon by Apollo program astronauts during 1969-1972. The only thing that might possibly be more mind-boggling is the relative lack of awareness, much less utter fascination and excitement, by the general public regarding the significance of our new interstellar presence.
On September 5, 1977, the United States government launched the Voyager 1 probe into space to study our outer solar system. The 1,592-pound spacecraft, built by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, went up on a Martin Marietta Titan IIIE rocket. Last October, NASA announced that Voyager 1 had left our solar system and entered interstellar space -- you know, that vast dark emptiness that lies between the stars.
It took Voyager 1 about 35 years to get from Earth to the edge of our solar system. Scientists are estimating that within about 40,000 years, the spacecraft will drift near another star (besides our own Sun). Note that by the word "near," we're talking about 9.3 trillion miles. Of course, by then Voyager will have long run out of electrical power and fuel for its thrusters. It will simply be adrift in space. Still, what an amazing piece of human engineering, and what an historic achievement -- although you'd never know it by talking to anyone. Even were the topic to come up, you'd likely get little more than a blank stare and a shrug of the shoulders.
Despite whatever happens on Earth, that small spacecraft will be floating around somewhere with a collected record of our planet and our species -- a kind of time capsule waiting to be opened by someone other than ourselves in our galaxy, universe. Mere words fail me. As Carl Sagan said, "The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet."
By then, humans will have long established colonies on the moon and Mars and have developed propulsion and life-support technologies capable of transporting spacecraft and people (and sustaining them) to other solar systems in a more reasonable time-frame than it took Voyager 1. SpaceX founder Elon Musk's vision of a "dual-planet" civilization will be little more than a charming ancient memory. But only if we find a way to truly capture the public's imagination about leaving our planet for the sake of... well, exploring and living somewhere else.
Unfortunately, NASA has done a poor job of inspiring us of late. One reason for this is that the agency keeps trying to recreate the spirit of the Apollo era. Forget Apollo. It's old history, a broken record. Besides, races to heavenly bodies against ideological enemies and being the first to plant the flag are boring, particularly to an infinitely more sophisticated audience. The inspiration has to be found elsewhere, and it's probably not going to be generated by the scientists and politicians but rather the explorers, settlers, and entrepreneurs, because it's the latter who always seem to have more of an ability to connect with the average person.
So while Voyager 1 and so many other spacecraft funded by government have been marvels to behold, the kind of space exploration (the human kind) that requires a huge amount of public interest and enthusiasm to succeed will be privately led. Ideally, with some degree of government incentivization... like the opening up of the West or the development of the railway, automobile, and aircraft industries. Oh yeah, and the Internet.