When it comes to space exploration, most people would say that July 20, 1969 was the pinnacle of human achievement. That was the date that Neil Armstrong stepped on the surface of the Moon. That event made Homo sapiens an extra-terrestrial species. People around the world stopped whatever they were doing to watch it live on television. Even the inscrutable Walter Cronkite was choked up as he reported on it. No one knew what would happen as Neil stepped off that ladder, but after a minute there he was, bouncing around in the moon dust. We had made it to the Moon. Afterward we felt so proud of ourselves; we humans knew we were really special!
On the other hand, most astronomers will tell you that the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990 was much more important to us than Apollo 11 because it produced an immeasurable magnitude of science. In other words, the Moon Landing was a voyage of the body, but Hubble was a voyage of the mind. So then we might ask, what about the spirit? Was there a space mission that changed the spiritual awareness of humanity? Well, yes there was. That would be the Voyager Program in 1977, and this just happens to be the 40th anniversary of the Voyager launch.
So, how could a space program change the human spirit — it revealed our insignificance. That’s right, more than Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” and more than all those deep field galaxies discovered by Hubble, Voyager laid bare the pettiness of our human schemes. You didn’t see it on television, and you could only read about it in science journals, but the astronomers who studied Voyager’s images were awestruck by the stark majesty of our solar system, and at the same time they were appalled at the bumbling hubris of their fellow earthlings. That may sound paradoxical, but when we glimpse the spark of naked consciousness in the universe it serves to unmask the irrational conspiracy of human society. As it turns out, astronomers do that quite often. By and large, they are a wiser and humbler lot than the rest of us because they have a cosmic perspective. Accordingly, the pictures taken by the Voyager spacecraft shattered many of our myths whether philosophical, religious, or scientific. With typical anthropocentric style, we humans had even named the planets after mythological deities, but Voyager’s detailed images were not myths, they were reality, and that reality made it clear that the viability of life on Earth hangs by a gossamer thread.
Although the change was subliminal at first, Voyager resulted in a paradigm shift across the entire breadth of human perception. It was perhaps our most elevated accomplishment since Buddha revealed the reality of the human condition in 500 BC. At no time in the intervening twenty-five centuries has humanity come so close to duplicating Buddha’s insight. That may seem like an audacious statement, but let’s examine it. Yes, the Moon landing showed that humans can set foot on other worlds, and Hubble validated the Big Bang fourteen billion years ago, but Voyager revealed the depth of humanity’s astounding hubris by simply travelling from planet to planet and taking pictures of our solar system. It was like looking in a mirror while high on LSD and seeing 99.99999% Emptiness — a great void — with a few tiny bits of luminous matter spinning about a blob of boiling solar plasma that will eventually consume itself! In other words, Voyager’s pictures showed us just how ephemeral our existence really is — tenuous to the point of non-existence. This is the emptiness that Buddha called sunyata. Now, no one made any grand speeches about that emptiness, and no world leaders took any action because of it, but subliminally we all took notice that Earth is a minuscule lifeboat adrift in an infinite sea, a lifeboat that the human species is happily poking full of holes like drunken sailors.
Contrast Voyager’s insight with a spiritual pigmy like Elon Musk, who assumes he has a God-given right to colonize Mars. Can you imagine anything more diabolical? Humanity is hopelessly unable to manage itself. It is destroying planet Earth like a cancer or a virus, and yet Elon Musk wants to infect another planet with our intolerant religions, our corrupt bureaucrats, our political refugees, and our toxic ideologies? One is reminded of Europeans committing genocide on Native Americans by giving them blankets infected with Small Pox! Those God-fearing Europeans called their crimes Manifest Destiny to lessen the sting! In truth, human beings are the virus. Humanity is simply unfit to visit other worlds until it can demonstrate the ability to govern its own world with morality, wisdom, and mindfulness. Buddha would have called these sila, prajna, and samadhi.
Now, I wish I could say that we humans are moving in that direction, but I can’t. Exploding populations, global warming, rampant militarization, the extinction of species, and the exhaustion of natural resources are a prescription for apocalypse. And glimpses of reality such as we had with Voyager are already fading from our memory. That tendency toward ignorance says much about our species and most likely spells our doom. General education (if you can afford it) focuses on technology and largely ignores notions of morality, ecology, spiritual growth, or higher consciousness. What little biological intelligence humans might have had is being replaced with artificial intelligence wielded by corporations to maximize profits for an insatiable class of elite power-brokers. Let’s continue with the Elon Musk example. Musk has no interest in saving mankind; he merely wants to immortalize his name as the founding father of the first extra-terrestrial Mars colony. If that weren’t true, he would be spending his billions to address over-population and deforestation rather than buying Dragon Capsules for SpaceX. To corporate elites like Musk, the plebeian masses are entirely expendable, and he would have no qualms about leaving them behind if he can escape with his genetically superior minions to a penthouse on Mars. Ironically, the elite 1% can get away with things like this because the 99% are too uneducated, too absorbed in social media white noise, and too drugged on opiates to appreciate what is happening to them. In reality, we humans are an embarrassment among life-forms, and yet we humor ourselves that we have been chosen by one god or another to inherit the stars! Elon Musk doesn’t need to go to Mars to find a desert. If he wants to do terra-forming, let him restore Uruk.
So, on this 40th anniversary of Voyager, at least let us pay tribute to those brilliant men and women who had the foresight to take a selfie of our solar system before we humans blast ourselves back into the Stone Age. Perhaps that one brief glimpse was all we will ever get? One man who deserves high tribute is Gary Flandro, an aerospace engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It was he who discovered a rare planetary alignment that occurs only once every 175 years. That alignment is what made it possible to use gravitation to propel the Voyager spacecraft on a path that would intersect with Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. Another honorable mention goes to Ed Stone, the project administrator. It was Ed’s relentless pursuit of knowledge that took Voyager to the edge of the solar system, and beyond. You have probably never heard of those men, but for decades they persevered in tiny offices at Caltech to expand your horizons. Lastly, we have to mention a scientific sage, Carl Sagan, Voyager’s orator-in-chief. Carl chaired a committee that had the foresight to send a message to the stars on Voyager. They made a golden LP record containing a collection of data, music and voices from Earth that will journey through the cosmos for billions of years.
Voyager is still operating today far beyond the bounds of the solar system. Now over ten billion miles from Earth, the Voyager probes have entered interstellar space, the region where the sun’s heliosphere gives way to the interstellar winds. But before the probes left the planets back in 1990, Carl Sagan made a passionate request for the cameras to be turned back toward Earth. A few frames were shot from the orbit of Neptune (3.7 billion miles away), and they turned out to be spellbinding. When the NASA scientists first looked at them, they thought something had gone wrong. They couldn’t see the Earth at all. Then someone noticed a single bluish pixel about halfway down a light band on the right side. What a sobering discovery — that pixel was the Earth! Carl Sagan called it ‘a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam’. If you are over forty, you are in that picture. That is a picture of you — a mote on a mote — a fraction of a pixel.
In his book ‘Pale Blue Dot’, Carl eloquently captured our human predicament in what amounts to a modern day sutra. Here is an excerpt:
“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest, and yet for us, it is everything. That dot is 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, has 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. Think of our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe; all that is 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, perhaps. 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 this pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
Carl Sagan died in 1996 at the age of sixty-two, long before Voyager left the solar system, but I think he must have felt some sense of satisfaction that he had helped to awaken humanity during his short life. And surely he was smiling at the thought of his golden record way out there in the void, a message in a bottle, hurtling toward the unknown. But maybe that message was really meant for us — will we still be here when aliens discover that Voyager probe, or will we be long extinct — victims of our own stupidity?
One day an asteroid will hit the Earth and sterilize it. One day the Sun will swell up and vaporize the Earth in solar plasma. Eventually the Sun will burn out altogether and the whole solar system will cool into a few lumps of frozen matter drifting on the interstellar winds. But long before any of that, the Earth will have been reduced to a barren desert because of one species and its insatiable greed. And the crazy wisdom aspect of this grim fate is that we have known about it for all of recorded history. We have known the truth since the earliest human cultures first settled within walled cities. In our earliest stories such as the Sumerian ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ (recorded on cuneiform tablets around 3,000 BC) the authors lamented that human greed had led to over-population and turned paradise into a desert. They lamented that their relentless desire for a life of ease had banished them from Eden.
In that epic, Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk, laments that even though he lives like a god, he is not immortal. He sees bodies floating by in the Euphrates and fears that this will be his fate as well. He sees that the idleness of city life has weakened him. He knows that life is hard in the wilderness, but at the same time, he says, “In the city man dies oppressed at heart. Our days are numbered; our occupations are like a breath of wind, and my name has not yet been stamped on bricks as my gods have decreed.” In other words, since he can’t make is body immortal, he will immortalize his name by doing great deeds. And beyond all reason, he decides to secure his name in history by subduing nature even further! He becomes the Donald Trump of the Bronze Age. He decides to travel to the Land of Cedars to make his mark. There he will conquer the gods of the wilderness and raise monuments to his city gods. This is how he will give his life meaning in the face of mortality; he will choose vanity over compassion.
When Gilgamesh and Enkidu reach the Land of Cedars, they are stunned by the majesty of the forest and the height of the trees. Nothing of this sort exists in Uruk. But lacking any respect for the wonders of nature, they set about felling the trees and hauling the trunks back to Uruk to be made into gates, and temples and palaces, and all of it will be dedicated to the glory of Gilgamesh and his city gods.
We see this model repeated throughout all of recorded history; humankind glorifying itself by subduing the innocence of nature. Even here in the 21st century, we are walking in the footsteps of Gilgamesh. What city dweller does not covet the comforts of suburbia or the summer camp impinging on the last bit of wilderness? Who among us doesn’t want our name to endure in stone? Even now, five thousand years on, we are no closer to discovering how to give our lives true meaning in the face of mortality. Toward the end of the Sumerian epic, Enkidu tells Gilgamesh of a dream, “…the earth fell dark, lightning struck, fires raged, and the clouds rained down death. The light disappeared, the fires went out, and all that was left was ash.”
Do we not have that same premonition as we watch the world dying around us? And yet, like Gilgamesh, we are still victimized by our Bronze Age brains. The reptilian core of that brain still fights for territory with tooth and claw. Our mammalian mid-brain still seeks for the safety of the herd. And our cerebral cortex still seeks for immortality at the expense of the natural world. Nothing has changed but the viciousness of our technology. The Epic of Gilgamesh concludes with the great king’s death and the following epitaph: “He saw mysteries, he knew secret things, he brought us a tale of the days before the flood. He went a long journey, was weary, worn out with labor, and returning he engraved the whole story on a stone.” After 5,000 years the only thing that has changed is that our population has soared to eight billion, and Earth’s biosphere stands on the verge of collapse. And instead of a stone, we have recorded our epic on a golden record that is now riding among the stars on Voyager — an epitaph that will one day be the last trace of us.Photos supplied by the author.
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