In 1957, several years before I was born, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik — the first man-made object to leave the Earth’s atmosphere. That simple little satellite captured people’s imagination around the world. We Americans were alarmed that the Soviets had “beat us” to space. Sputnik therefore helped spur both the U.S. space effort and such things as better education for our kids in math and science.
It didn’t take long for us to catch up to the accomplishments of the Soviets. When I was a baby in the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy famously said we should put a man on the moon within the decade. I was in grade school when we met that deadline, landing men on the moon in the summer of 1969. I remember the event, which was televised live.
My family gathered around the TV to listen to Walter Cronkite announce the events of the lunar landing. My father took pictures of the television screen with his 35 mm camera. He deemed the event that important. For the first time in the history of the world, we had put spacecraft and people on the moon, exploring places which had been seen from Earth but never before been visited.
When I was in high school in 1977, a much longer term exploratory effort was launched. Two unmanned space probes, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, lifted off from Earth in quick succession. The idea behind the Voyager probes was to fly past planets in the middle and outer solar system and keep going into interstellar space.
In case the Voyager probes were ever intercepted by intelligent life outside our solar system, they carried images and recordings which tried to convey the essence of human civilization — at least as we thought of it in the 1970s. It was our effort to communicate with “E.T.,” potentially even millennia after the probes left us.
When I was in college, Voyager 1 did a fly-by of Jupiter and then Saturn. In addition to images of these large, gaseous planets, the probe sent back pictures of their moons. The transmissions fired people’s imagination like Sputnik had done a generation before.
When I was finishing up my doctorate in geology, Voyager 1 responded to orders transmitted to it by NASA and turned to look back at Earth. The image the probe made was transmitted to us and we saw our planet as a “pale blue dot” hanging in the darkness of space. On that one little speck we all live — a sobering reminder that our Earth may be large compared to the dimensions of familiar objects like streets and houses, but it is tiny compared to the vastness of the solar system.
For quite some time after that image was made in 1990, Voyager 1 continued zooming away from us and from the sun, traveling at about 38,000 mph. Zipping along at that rate it traveled farther and farther toward the edge of our solar system. Eventually it moved beyond the orbit of Uranus, Neptune and finally Pluto. During that time I went from being a woman in her prime to one with arthritis in both her knees. Now, 36 years after it was launched, Voyager 1 has traveled almost 12 billion miles and reached another milestone of space exploration, leaving behind our solar system and moving into interstellar space.
“Voyager has gone a long way,” Michael Allen said to me. Allen is a faculty member in Physics and Astronomy at Washington State University. “Light travels enormously quickly, but it takes more than 17 hours for light from where we are on Earth to travel out to where Voyager 1 is now.”
Using a special telescope, we have recently detected the faint radio signal coming from Voyager 1. That amazes me because Voyager’s transmitter is a tiny 22 watts. From what I’ve read, that’s about the strength of a radio transmitter in a cop car.
It’s taken most of a lifetime for human space efforts to go from launching a satellite that was the first object to leave Earth’s atmosphere to getting a probe into interstellar space. But we’ve now done what few could imagine before I was born.
Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.