The Inspiring “Pale Blue Dot” and the Clunky New Horizons

I recently came across a striking animation of Carl Sagan’s famous passage from his last book “Pale Blue Dot”:

Pale Blue Dot from ORDER on Vimeo.

He’s commenting on this picture, taken at his request by Voyager 1 in 1990 from 3.6 billion miles away:


Earth is the dot in the circle, seen from the edge of the solar system. The colored bands are lens artifacts from sunlight

For those too impatient for video, Sagan is saying:

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s 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, 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.

That’s the kind of writing that gets you on the Heroes of Science action figure list:

(c) datazoid.  Click to see the rest

(c) datazoid. Click to see the rest

Yet I don’t think he’s right. He saw all of humanity enclosed in this 1/12 of a pixel blue dot. But this picture shows that we are NOT limited to this dot. The work of our hands now extends all across the solar system. Our probes have reached every planet. They’ve actually touched Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Titan. The Voyagers have even gone far beyond our local system, and will soon cross the heliopause. They’ll be beyond the influence of the Sun itself. Our bodies haven’t gone there, but our minds and our works have.

That doesn’t make the Blue Dot less precious. It’s still our oasis in an infinite desert. But we’ve ventured out beyond it now, just as Sagan had always wanted.

Now, it’s sad to contrast Sagan’s idealistic Sixties vision of space with that of today.   He was involved with both the Pioneer 10 and 11, and the Voyager 1 and 2 probes, which are the only ones to have gone beyond Pluto.   Only one other probe is due to do so: the New Horizons Pluto flyby.   This was launched in 2006, and will pass Pluto in July 2015.  It’s a technically astonishing mission, traveling faster than any other and having already done good science by asteroid 132524 APL and Jupiter.

Yet everything else about it looks dreary compared to Sagan’s.  Start with the name – it sounds like a corporate morale-building program.   And how does one actually have a new horizon?  Doesn’t the horizon look the same everywhere?  And aren’t there no horizons at all in space?

Then there’s the paraphernalia that it’s carrying: state quarters from Florida and Maryland (where it was built), two American flags, some CDs with names gathered from the Internet, and a Pluto postage stamp.  Compare that with the Pioneer Plaque showing what human beings look like, and the Voyager Golden Records giving the distinctive sounds of the Earth.  By the time of New Horizons, they should have been able to put a record with all the distinctive images of the Earth on it.  At a minimum, they could have done something like the Rosetta Disk, which etches samples of all 1500 written human languages in micron-high letters on a 10 cm nickel disk.

The principal investigator for the mission, Alan Stern, was asked about this:

“When the Pioneer plaques were created, they ended up creating some controversy: they offended some people’s sensibilities dating back to the 70s having to do with the drawings of unclothed human beings, even sanitized as they were. And when the Voyager put plaques on-board, they went through a huge exercise as a result to vette the content…

After we got into the project in 2002, it was suggested we add a plaque and I rejected that simply as a matter of focus. We had a small team on a tight budget and I knew it would be a big distraction. I didn’t want to see us being distracted from the project and find ourselves derailing the project or getting into flight and finding we had some problem and wishing we’d have been more focused during development.”

Small team, tight budget,  didn’t want to offend the rubes, and a complete lack of the PR flare that Sagan had in abundance.   Even the Florida quarter only got in because they wanted to tickle the interest of then-governor Jeb Bush.  They needed to see him because there was radioactive material in the probe in the radio-isotope generator, and thought of the quarter gimmick on the drive up.  These are not people you want doing your branding.

Stern did include one cool thing, an ounce of Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes.  Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930, but died in 1997.  Stern also put in one really odd bit of gear,  a piece of SpaceShipOne, the Burt Rutan suborbital rocket plane.   He said it is “opening up space in a completely different way to individuals” and that it was a “uniquely American achievement”.   SpaceShipOne and its successors can’t even get into orbit, something rockets have done for almost 60 years, yet somehow they’re inspiring to a guy who is sending a probe to Pluto at 40 km/sec.   Poor Stern must have beaten down by a lot of cancelled projects at NASA.  He actually quit in 2008 over a budget dispute with the widely disliked NASA administrator Michael Griffin, and is now a consultant to Jeff Bezos’ hobby rocket company, Blue Origin.

So from Pale Blue Dot to state quarters, from a vision of the grandeur of the cosmos to deep bureaucratic fights over money.   Sometimes I miss the 20th century.  Not often, but sometimes.

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