With last week’s successful reconnaissance of Pluto, the junior and most distant member of our solar system, we reached a milestone in human history: robotic visits to all nine planets.
And we did it in just 50 years, each mission more capable than its predecessor. The first Mars flyby in 1965 returned grainy, low-resolution images. Compare them to the you-are-there photos made by the Curiosity rover since 2011.
Thousands of scientists and engineers, some of them from Duke and other Research Triangle universities, contributed in ways large and small to our assay of the cosmic neighborhood. The effort has revealed worlds beyond imagining, but not one except our own presents the merest evidence of life.
Nobody is out there waving “Yankee go home!” signs, which is a disappointment because the most explored of the planets, Mars, was the great hope for finding something crawling around, if only a wayward bacterium.
But that disappointment doesn’t come from lack of trying.
Currently, some 20 spacecraft and planetary rovers are active in the solar system. About two-thirds of them wear the stars and stripes. Two American rovers are moving about the Martian surface, and orbiting above them are spacecraft that relay enormous amounts of data to and from Earth — in effect, a telephone exchange 43 million miles away.
This country’s planetary prowess was not earned easily or cheaply. NASA’s budgets for long-haul missions to the planets have waxed and waned through the decades. The wonder is that so much has been accomplished with so little. Like many others, the spectacular New Horizons mission to Pluto, the demoted dwarf planet on the rim of the sun’s empire, rode there on a shoestring.
It’s a testament to our fortitude that early rocket failures prone to scattering spare parts over Cape Canaveral were regarded as lessons learned, not as terminal events. The rocketeers kept on lighting fuses until they got it right.
Although the Hubble Space Telescope returns images of unsurpassed majesty, Hubble isn’t a planetary mission. Images from our electronic surrogates such as Cassini and its Huygens lander, dispatched to study ringed Saturn and its many moons, are Hubble’s equal in the dazzle department.
Moreover, three doughty spacecraft — Voyagers One and Two and New Horizons — either have or will enter interstellar space, leaving their birthplace behind for all eternity.
Youngsters in Durham’s middle schools today take these events in stride, having grown up in the mature phase of the space program. But for those of us who remember when the apex of rocketry was the V-2 missile, each new accomplishment stirs pride in the better angels of our nature.
From the V-2, the world’s first ballistic missile born in war to its forthcoming descendant, NASA’s mighty Space Launch System capable of sending manned missions to Mars, our machines for exploration beyond the atmosphere have been dedicated to peaceful use.
Other nations, China, India, Japan and Russia, are sending robots to the moon and inner planets. The old Soviet Union, known for its trademark bellicosity, returned the only images we have of Venus’ surface, a place that might charitably be described as hell with the fires burned out.
The point is, robotic planetary exploration is bloodless and devoid of earthly animosity. These increasingly intelligent machines that subsist solely on electricity produce impartial knowledge available to us all.
Through the eyes of these technological Rembrandts, we look back at this tiny blue pixel floating in the void, seeing ourselves as we really are: a lonely outpost of consciousness, improbable beings privileged to live on a garden planet that for all we may ever know, could be unique in the universe.
It’s altogether fitting then that New Horizons carries a tiny vial of Pluto’s discoverer’s ashes. A Kansas farm boy with an early bent for stargazing, Clyde Tombaugh was working as a technician at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1930 when he found Planet X, the mathematically predicted object that became Pluto.
So, yes, there is grandeur in what we have done over the last 50 years. Onward into the infinite, Voyagers and New Horizons. You, not we, are the immortals.
Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.