#1. It Was the Year Voyager Left the Solar System
There are three times when it's both acceptable and expected for a man to cry: the birth of his child, the death of a loved one, and any time he thinks about Voyager. Hurtling at 38,000 miles per hour, 11.7 billion miles from Earth at this moment is what basically amounts to a hopelessly optimistic message in a bottle, and it will go on careening through space long after the Earth is ash on the surface of the sun. Voyager I was launched in the late '70s to take pictures of Jupiter and Saturn, and beyond that primary objective, everything else it might do was just interstellar icing. Now, over 30 years later, it's drifting through space to no scientific end other than to satisfy our curiosity of how far it can go, and on August 25, it became the first man-made object to leave the solar system. So, "pretty far" seems to be the answer.
What's so exciting about this moment in history isn't that we can fling something far enough that not even the sun can pull it back; Voyager is exciting because of the content it carries. World famous astrophysicist and impossibly perfect person Carl Sagan was commissioned as part of a team to create a message intended for any intelligent life that might find Voyager once it jumped the fence of our solar system. They decided, as I'm sure anyone in the '70s would have, on sending a pure gold record in a pure gold jacket, because "100 percent class" is the same in any language. The record on Voyager holds about 1/240,000 the amount of memory as the phone you're probably using to read this, but Sagan and his team were able to cram in pictures, songs, greetings in 60 languages, and various sounds of Earth. Those sounds included a kiss, a baby crying, whales singing, a mother talking to her newborn for the first time, and, assuming those aliens hearts weren't already puddles at their weird, tentacled feet, one other noise so beautiful, even the Predator would be forced to shake his head and find a planet with something less charming to eviscerate.
20th Century Fox
"Maybe there's an ammonite somewhere I can step on."
See, Carl Sagan worked on the Voyager project with a cosmologist named Annie Druyan, and together they recorded a compressed EEG of her brain and an EKG of her body as she thought really hard about civilization and Earth and humans, hoping that some alien species could decode all the pops and static millions of years from now. But at the end she reserved the last few minutes of the recording to secretly think about Carl. It turns out that as the two of them combed through all of human history, finding the most important pieces to fire into space, they had fallen in love. Annie Druyan then did her best to capture the sensation of being in love the only way she could, and then shot that feeling into the cosmos as the best representation of humanity, even after the Earth is dust.
Now, whether Voyager ever drifts through another solar system (it won't) or is miraculously plucked from the incomprehensible, dark, meaningless swath of space by an intelligent species (it probably won't) isn't nearly as important as what that golden record says about us. Somehow, among bureaucracy and budget cuts and cries of waste, things like this can still get made. They may cost millions and will likely never fulfill their purpose, but we all inherently know the value of trying. These are the most important things humanity will ever do, because they are indicative of the best of what we have to offer. Voyager is simultaneously meticulously logical and absurdly optimistic. It's complicated and light-hearted. It's us on our very best day, and knowing it's out there, beyond our solar system, representing the home team for the first time ever, I can't help but feel proud to be a part of humanity. It's likely never going to be a communication device, but it will still exist as a memory, a photograph of who we were and even if no one sees it, man, we tried. What else could we do?
Thanks for sticking around for an entire article about space. I probably owe you something.
Just look at those dummies.
As 2013 draws to a close, be sure to check out Cracked's year in review because, well, we know you don't remember it half as well as you think.