They two Voyagers were launched in 1977 to study the outer planets of the Solar System: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. A blog can hardly do justice to the quantity and quality of the information beamed back to us across the void. The turbulent atmosphere of Jupiter with its storm-system known as the Great Red Spot, the rings of Saturn and the shadows on them caused by its magnetic field, Uranus (which largely kept its secrets from Voyager) and Neptune the ethereal blue planet that is the sentinel of the Solar System: all these and many of their diverse and fascinating moons have been disclosed as never before.
The two Voyagers are receding from us (in different directions) by several thousand km/hour. Yet their 1970s technology, so clunky by current standards, is still working and is capable of transmitting information across billions of miles, and for as long as they can continue to be powered. It’s an eerie thought that these humanly-made objects are now crossing the threshold between the sun’s influence, passing out of the environment that is earth’s home, and entering deep space. This is as far as anything made by humankind has ever travelled.
Why did I find all this powerfully moving?
For two reasons. The first is the tribute the Voyagers’ journeys are still paying to what human beings are capable of. But this isn’t simply the technology that launched them on this odyssey. The spacecraft are carrying discs that are a greeting from Planet Earth to any ET who may chance to come across them. They contain a record of what the world was like in the 1970s: landscapes, townscapes, human language, beliefs, buildings, writings and culture. Among this testimony to homo sapiens sent into space was the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, perhaps because there would be some consensus (which I’d endorse) that he was the greatest composer of the western world.
Of course the chance that any extra-terrestial will ever see pictures of children across the world and listen to their greetings is practically zero. But the real point was not to inform ET. It was to inform us, and by an act of the imagination, underline the infinite preciousness of planet earth and the miracle of life that has evolved on its surface. To think of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues hurtling through inter-stellar space for aeons to come should make us realise how marvellous a thing it is that we are here at all, so privileged, so gifted and yet so precariously placed in the face of the threats that are posed not by outside forces but from our very selves and our capacity for self-destruction. We hear the echoes of our own life from a far-off place, and that makes us hear ourselves in new ways.
There is a real agenda for theology here, because the Voyager journeys not only put questions about the cosmos and its meaning but also put the psalmist’s question (apologies for the non-inclusive language): ‘what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you visit him?’ That question of Psalm 8 is asked because the psalmist has looked up into the sky and been awed by its tracts unknown. If the Voyager programme has helped instil a greater sense of awe so that we begin to know our place in the universe, it will have been worth it. I wish I could believe that the past 35 years have seen the human family take that question seriously, become more aware, more responsible, wiser. But we must not lose heart.
My second reason for being touched was more personal. The Voyagers were launched in 1977. That was also the year that our first child was born and launched on the adventure of being alive. She too has been travelling for all that time. Like them, she is an explorer. She is bound to be because she is a human being, and it’s the vocation and destiny of every human being to discover worlds undreamed of and try to make sense of life’s mystery.
This is where cosmology and religion belong together. It's one of those places where faith seeks understanding to the enrichment and delight of the human mind and heart.