A little ambition can go an awfully long way
It’s taken over 42 years to get 20 hours away, but we’ve gained more than a lifetime of knowledge. Knowledge that has enlightened and enriched us.
Back in 1977, NASA launched Voyager 1 from Cape Canaveral. After escaping Earth’s gravity, it accelerated out towards the planets, beginning a journey that it’s still on. As I write this, @NASAVoyager tells me it’s 20 hrs 34 mins 44 secs of light-travel away. Or, to put it in Earthly terms, over 15,000,000,000 miles.
Over 42 years and 15 billion miles. And sister ship Voyager 2 is almost as far from Earth, having entered interstellar space last year.
Wow. It’s just incredible, not just in terms of the vast, almost incomprehensible distance (to a human, if not the universe), but also in the ambition and foresight shown by the scientists, engineers, mathematicians at NASA.
The Voyager mission took advantage of a once-in-every-175 years arrangement of the outer planets in the late 1970s and the 1980s, which allowed for a four-planet tour for a minimum of fuel and time. That was the initial brief, and as such, the spacecraft were only designed to last 5 years.
They left Earth in 1977. Instead of 5 years and four planets, we’re currently at 42 years and all the giant outer planets of our solar system, 48 of their moons, and the unique systems of rings and magnetic fields those planets possess. They found rings around Jupiter and nitrogen geysers on Neptune’s moon, Triton. With care and clever programming by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have seen their five-year lifetimes stretched to 12 years, then 30 years, and now over 40 (a bit like me, though I’m not sure I’ve had enough attention of great scientific minds).
And today, they are surveying interstellar space, sending back data from beyond our solar system, no longer in the warm embrace of the Sun. It will be 40,000 years before Voyager 1 appraoches a planetary system again.
The foresight, commitment, vision and sheer ambition of this is hugely inspiring. The craft and engineering involved – they are still powered, operating in the coldness of space – means they were built with a level of care and expertise that has, perhaps, surpassed even their creators’ wildest dreams. Though I like to think not.
I like to think about the 15 billion mile journey and where it started. I like to think that the scientists and engineers had the ambition to get to interstellar space. I like to think that they saw the scale of the opportunity, looked a long way ahead and went for it. And it makes me want to be a little more ambitious, in my own way, every day.
OK, so 42 years and 15,000,000,000 miles is a little extreme. But a little investment, foresight, craft, and ambition can go an awfully long way.
Let’s look ahead, and be ambitious.
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