Why 2013 Gave Us Reason to Care About Space Again
Space is tiring. The infinity of stars, the vast emptiness between them, and the complete detachment from our own daily lives make it exhausting just to think about. But before anyone accuses video games, television, or Facebook of eating up our attention spans and keeping the next generation from becoming astrophysicists, you should know that historically we've never given a shit about space. Leading up to the moment man stepped foot on the moon, the American public and even JFK himself gingerly touched their thumbs to their fingers and showcased the most boring jerk-off motion they could muster. The space program had to trick people into caring by turning it into a competition, a race, and still the majority of people didn't watch the moon landing, despite the fact that it's remembered as one of the most important historical moments for all mankind.
If for no other reason than the extraordinary soundstage.
But I think we all want to like space. We maintain some semblance of curiosity, like a residual ember from a childhood passion that occasionally reignites on dark evenings when we look up and startle ourselves. The problem isn't that people are opposed to the idea of space and space travel -- science fiction has proven how much we love that. The problem is that we only care about the greater universe once we can contextualize our achievements there. We only enjoy space travel in hindsight because it nicely rounds out our idea of human potential, as though we're building toward some cosmic greatness with each step. But the interim logistics, watching each shuttle launch, each satellite track, each rover dig hopelessly at dead dirt, is like watching golf, except with more audio static and the slim chance that the athletes will explode.
That's why 2013 certainly doesn't feel like the year space travel mattered again right now, but I'm calling my shot, because I firmly believe that a decade from now we will all look back on this year as one of the most important years of space travel in human history, and not just because of my groundbreaking, justifiably praised series, Dispatches from Goddamn Space.
It Was the Year the Mars Reality Show Started Casting
We are going to colonize Mars. There's no need to qualify that with a "probably" or "hopefully" anymore. We are living in the future, and the gears are already in motion to build and inhabit a settlement on Mars. The only catch is that none of the pioneers are ever allowed to leave, up to and including the day they are turned inside out and their blood boils, or whatever the most common form of death is on the hell planet. Oh, sorry, one more catch: It's going to be a reality show.
Almost 200,000 people have applied to be on the first team there, setting up equipment, testing soil samples for water, and presumably humping in the hydroponic chamber and then complaining about it during confessionals. Everyone who has applied already knows it's going to be a reality show and, more importantly, that they are guaranteed to die someday 34 million miles from Earth. Jarringly, all the pretend astronauts with headshots seem fine with that. They either are extraordinarily brave or just want to be on television that badly.
Regardless, this moment represents an ugly truth about humanity: During this monumental step, our species setting up shop on a distant planet, the story only made headlines outside of scientific circles because the Mars One team dressed it up as another Big Brother. We need a greater narrative about humanity in space to contextualize the achievement, even if it's a narrative we're gearing up to loathe. Right now the whole project still feels like an Internet hoax, but years from now, when you're binge watching drunken pseudo-scientists fight in a space Jacuzzi, remember that it all started in 2013, the year science fiction gave way to reality, in every sense of the word.
It Was the Year We Found Liquid Water on Europa
From the moment we could fire cameras into space, the first thing we looked for was any sign of life. We searched the moon, then Mars and successively distant, equally dead planets while trying not to panic like Tom Cruise in the empty Times Square scene from Vanilla Sky. With each mission, it looked more and more likely we were alone in the neighborhood, at least until recently, when scientists discovered liquid water spouting gaily from one of Jupiter's moons.
Water in its liquid state is the foundation of life on our planet, so finding it on Europa is pretty exciting to the types of people who fucking love microbes. Voyager first discovered that Europa was sheathed in ice back in 1979, but given its distance from the sun, scientists assumed it was probably frozen through. It wasn't until the Hubble telescope caught images this year of a massive fountain firing from the poles that we knew the ice was a shell over what is most likely an ocean sitting on a molten core that's keeping it warm.
Already there are plans to fire a spacecraft at Europa that will collect some of the water gushing out of the geyser. With any luck, it will reveal that the water is conducive to life or even contains life, not just because that would be one of the most important moments in human history, but because we would always remember 2013 as the year it started, and I would forever be remembered as correct in my prediction, which is what we all really want, if you think about it.
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.
"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.