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Lovely, Dark, & Deep:
The Farthest: Voyager in Space

Voyager 2, loading into a Centaur rocket.

2,806 words

I suspect most people have particular topics that affect them profoundly and cause a welling up of emotion that most other people would find a bit strange. For me, the topic is space probes. When I watch documentaries or read articles about them, I tear up the way we all tear up at a piece of heartbreakingly beautiful music or a cynic-proof rendition of the national anthem. After the unmanned spacecraft Cassini completed its mission in 2017 and sent back its stunning images of Saturn, the probe’s creators issued a final command. Like a condemned soldier, Cassini took a death dive into the swirling abyss of the planet’s amber-pale clouds, sacrificing itself in hopes of relaying some last bits of information about the insides of its subject. I was devastated. I sat staring blankly at the rolling credits the way I had after the ending scene of Gallipoli. Was this overwrought? Yes, probably.

Maybe my reaction had to do with the fact that this machine, alone and hundreds of millions of miles from earth, had more value in terms of knowledge — was somehow more essentially human — than the vast majority of the globe’s population would ever be. It represented the efforts of a tiny minority, the best minds determined not to remain forever-bound to this world by man’s limitations, but to overcome them all. Fortunately for my sensibilities, not all space probes have followed Cassini’s kamikaze flight plan but have continued to beam back to us as they have begun what could be an epic journey lasting billions of years. Once in a while, our Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) airs something that isn’t garbage, and its film The Farthest: Voyager in Space (2017), a documentary on two sister probes launched in the 1970s and sent to study the outer planets, is well worth watching. [1] [1] There isn’t much to be proud of when we survey the current state-of-affairs in our society, but I think space exploration would earn us at least an approving nod from our ancestors. These little explorers are examples of the quintessential spirit of restless Western man that drives him to discover more, to risk all for the future, to go “the farthest.”

Promises to Keep

The 1970s was a fascinating decade. It had plenty of problems, many of them discussed by writers on this webzine. Still, its weird marriage of darkness and cheesiness resulted in a magnetism unlike any other era. It had personality. And I’m also rather glad I wasn’t around for it. Many historians, taking their cue from President Jimmy Carter’s notorious speech in 1979, agreed that America suffered from a “crisis of confidence” in the seventies, caused by the fallout from a changing economy that was rusting away northern towns [2] [2]; years of sending drafted young men to fight and lose a useless war; Camelot crumbling and leaving Watergate behind; the working class abandoning its historic party as that party made a separate peace with blacks and the white bien-pensants of “radical chic.” [3] [3] Yet the 70s were a heady time for America’s space program, still giddy from its moon landing and still wanting to shove Russia’s nose in its success. A few NASA representatives approached President Richard Nixon in 1972 with a bold plan. In five years, they explained, the outer planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune would begin to align in such a way that the space program could send a pair of probes to photograph these gas giants. The men described how they proposed to use the gravity sling-shots from planetary orbits to catapult the probes onto a course that would place them in the path of each successive planet. Instead of taking several decades, exploration of the outer four worlds would take less than half as long. The last time a favorable alignment of this nature had occurred, they told Nixon, Thomas Jefferson had occupied his office. “And he blew it.” With that, Nixon was sold, and the engineers got to work building Voyager 1 and 2. NASA kept secret the fact that the Voyager project had a second, even more audacious mission: to make the first manmade objects to travel beyond our solar system and into the infinity of interstellar space.

There Is Some Mistake

Most people who have heard of Voyager know the mission for its famed “Golden Record,” a golden-plated phonograph disk encoded with images, sounds, and music from Earth, meant to represent the “diversity” of its history and cultures to any extraterrestrials who happened upon either of the two craft. I found it difficult to get too upset with the compilers’ choice to include non-Western peoples, languages (beginning with ancient Sumerian) and sounds not made by humans alone, but also by birds and wind rustling through the trees. I understood these to be a kind of supporting cast that centered the Western experience. We know that “diversity” is a disingenuous word that has come to mean a program deliberately used to cudgel white people out of places and institutions their ancestors left for them. In this case, it was an earnest, if faulty, attempt at breadth — the desire to assume the white man’s traditional burden of being responsible for everyone else. I have nothing against birds or trees (quite a fan, actually), but they could have left off the obscure African and Asian greetings in favor of a sonata or Shakespearean sonnet. We wanted to put our best foot forward, yes? Not all cultures and peoples had earned equal rights to speak to space aliens. In any case, NASA stashed copies of the Golden Record inside both of the Voyager probes, complete with a diagram instructing any finders on how to play them. Will E. T. play our record? Almost certainly not. For all we know, life is a fluke, only possible because of the endless permutations allowed by an infinite universe of chance. This very logic, however, prevents us from completely ruling out little green men listening to Beethoven one day. Perhaps some cosmic poetry will result in our impossibly distant descendants, having left our dying sun ages before, finding one or both Voyager craft and freeing them at last from untold lifetimes of “Homeric” wanders.

Without a Farmhouse Near

As planned, Voyager 1 and 2 both launched from Cape Canaveral in 1977 several months apart and began a grand tour of the outer solar system when Voyager 1 arrived at Jupiter in March 1979. No detailed images of the gas giants existed before then, and scientists were amazed at Jupiter’s complexity and cyclonic bands of cloud and storm. The spacecraft picked up a whining frequency coming from the flashing cloud-tops, and NASA determined that they had found evidence of the Jovian lightning astronomers had speculated about for centuries. Voyager 1 continued on to Saturn and performed a flyby of Titan, its largest moon and the only satellite in the solar system possessing an opaque and rich atmosphere. Because scientists had wanted an extensive look at hazy Titan, Voyager 1 did not sling-shot over to the next two planets, but began its trajectory to exit the solar system. So, it was up to Voyager 2, moving at a slower pace, to capture the likenesses of sideways Uranus and cobalt-blue Neptune. Indeed, Voyager’s images of these last ice giants still remain the only close-up pictures we have of them. The pride and emotion team members felt then was still palpable when they spoke about Voyager on camera decades later.

You can buy The World in Flames: The Shorter Writings of Francis Parker Yockey here. [4]

The Darkest Evening

There was a poignant scene during which the Voyager team gathered to watch the launching of the doomed Space Shuttle Challenger immediately following Voyager 2’s approach of Uranus and its moon Miranda. The 1986 Challenger Disaster was a sobering moment and resulted in a coolness on the part of the media and the public toward space exploration. None of the scientists working on Voyager shared those doubts, nor did they mind much when reporters quit coming to press conferences. One woman described working on the mission as a kind of high, and like “junkies,” she and her colleagues couldn’t get enough of the new surprises each planetary arrival brought them. Almost everyone appearing in the program, from the Voyager project directors to the junior members assigned to monitor the two craft during the wee hours, spoke about the probes as if they were beloved children. Several men, now aged, held back the kind of proud tears only a parent could know, as he watched his children leave him behind to seek a destiny greater than his own. After films like 2016’s Hidden Figures, propaganda that credited black women for landing Americans on the moon, the Voyager documentary was almost as refreshing as First Man (2018). No one interviewed for The Farthest was nonwhite, and apart from the “diversity” silliness surrounding some of the content included in the Golden Record, the documentary was free of mumbo-jumbo. In fact, the only “person of color” I noticed was Barack Obama, who spent a few seconds on-screen congratulating himself for Voyager 1’s breaching of interstellar space during a speech in 2012. The sour taste left behind from this cameo was brief and just confirmed how much I preferred ignoring him.

The Sweep of Easy Wind

Sometimes, the film seemed to skim and rush through the mission’s four-and-a-half decades of travel, and I wished it would settle occasionally — maybe on a more thorough discussion of findings on the gas giants. I wanted more details about how NASA engineers constructed the probes and their delicate instruments to withstand the jarring rigors of take-off and temperatures in space hundreds of degrees below freezing. . . and how were they so sure that both crafts would keep sailing on for the expected four or five billion years without them falling apart? The Jet Propulsion Lab’s assurances that “there’s no weathering in space” might have convinced me if they had given a more modest proposal of, say, 200 million years. The more I write about it, the more convinced I am that this project might have been the most ambitious gambit humans had ever tried. A few of the engineers did say that the construction team may have caused a run on aluminum foil. In order to insulate the probes’ outer wiring, they purchased rolls and rolls of the stuff over a period of weeks from local grocery stores, forcing some Southern California housewives to sacrifice for the mission.

Between the Woods and Frozen Lake

Yes, I wanted a slower pace and perhaps a longer film (it’s ninety-six minutes from start to finish). But the Voyager story was one of movement — movement that had to be deliberate and precise so that the craft could gather the needed data, while precariously threading a space-time needle so as to avoid tumbling into a planet’s atmosphere or crashing into a moon. As caffeine-addled crew members on earth fretted over possible catastrophes, they also had to worry about Voyager 1 and 2 catching the gravitational sling-shots at the right moment in order to propel them toward another precise rendezvous with the next planet on the list. When trying to avoid Neptune’s imposing companion Triton as it rounded the planet, Voyager 2 hugged Neptune’s outer limits so closely, that its spindly legs skimmed the upper wisps of its cloud-tops.

The skill that went into making sure these probes executed their tasks perfectly was incredible. The most powerful computers in 1977 could barely match the power and complexity of today’s car keyfobs. Yet, as if paralyzed, we seem unable now to match the accomplishments, or even the ambitions of such accomplishments, achieved with genius and aluminum foil (and yes, a whole bunch of funding) a few, short generations ago. Some blame our complacency on the ending of the Cold War, but I cannot help but think that the simultaneous stalling of our space program and the denigration of historical Western explorers, who also faced uncertain and dangerous voyages, are not coincidental in their timing. It is as if we are loath to do great things or to praise noble deeds, not for fear of failure, but for fear of success and what it might reveal to us — that glory involves cost and that triumph throws into stark relief those who are masters and those who are slaves. And I beg the reader’s patience with the digression, but chattering philistines can say what they will about fascists; those people would have established colonies on Mars and Europa by now.

Miles to Go

After leaving Neptune, Voyager 2 took the last images of the mission when its head swiveled around and its lenses captured each of the planets it could find in a parting portrait of our solar system. The earth, just barely visible, hung suspended in a sunbeam. With that final farewell, both probes began the second and longer part of their journeys. Today they are beyond the heliosphere (the sun’s magnetic field), meaning that they are officially “interstellar” spacecraft. Voyager 1 is 13,914,161,000 miles from earth, and Voyager 2 is 11,515,227,826 miles away; as I write this sentence, these absurd numbers have already increased by several hundred miles. [4] [5] In 300 years, they will reach the inner band of the huge Oort Cloud of gas, dust, and debris that rings around our solar system like a giant freeway loop. Scientists predict that they will pass by “close” alien stars somewhere between 40,000 and 80,000 years from now. [5] [6] And after that, who can say?

I’ve noticed something that seems on the surface like a paradox in New Right circles. A sizeable contingent has embraced a neo-paganism that reasserts an ancient European sensibility, perhaps romanticizing the agrarian and rural; another has expressed dedication to science or a desire for “cosmotheism,” a belief system that focuses on the evolution of a higher-order man, who will go on to conquer the stars. These are not irreconcilable worldviews but complements, akin to the dual sexes, that both spring from the same European soul. The one reveres the god of thunder, while the other seeks to join him. The former shows a longing for connection to the past, the grounding on this earth, and the honor we should pay the sacred soil of our origins. The latter is the beckoning force of the future beyond earth that compels us, just as it once compelled our Norse warriors and Druid priests, to gaze above in wonder as we pray for valor and wisdom. Both paths value nature, its mysteries — and our bloodlines that promise us transcendence. The Voyager siblings represent this duality, as they leave us behind for other worlds, though still tied to our own through the hands of their inventors, whom they will outlive, and through the recordings placed inside their aluminum bodies. As you read these words, home and hopefully warm, they speed further into the frozen void, “lovely, dark, and deep,” with “miles” yet “to go before [they] sleep.” [6] [7]

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Notes

[1] [10] As part of its American Experience series, PBS has produced another quality film about a lesser-known subject in scientific history called Space Men (2016). It recounts the experiments of postwar rocket scientists and Air Force pilots who flew in the first manned almost-spacecraft: large helium balloons that took their passengers over twenty miles above the earth (or beyond ninety-nine percent of the atmosphere).

[2] [11] Readers interested in 1970s history written as an age of declining hopes and realignments should consider Jefferson R. Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (New York: The New Press, 2010). Cowie is an academic, so his labor/cultural history leans predictably left, but he is not unsympathetic toward his white subjects. One of the book’s front plates has an image of four white construction workers, circa 1970, sitting below a sign that reads: “YOU cannot be replaced!” If there is a more eloquent and damning indictment of modern America’s political failures, I haven’t seen it.

[3] [12] I borrow this phrase from Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” New York Magazine, June 8, 1970, 26-56.

[4] [13]Voyager: Mission Status [14],” NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at California Institute of Technology, accessed August 9, 2020.

[5] [15] Are you not afraid of an existential crisis? I recommend watching MelodySheep’s “Timelapse of the Future: A Journey to the End of Time [16],” March 20, 2018. Voyager 1 gets a cameo at the 1:50 mark.

[6] [17] This quote, as well as each of the subtitles, are lines from the poem by Robert Frost, “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening,” The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged (New York: Holt, 1979), 224.