If we demolished the Pyramids would anyone notice?

Orbis Quintus noted that the Voyager pro­gramme was under threat on April 13. At the time of writ­ing the decision had not been announced, but the fact that the issue was raised at all got me won­der­ing how blind we are to the cre­ation of what will be, to future gen­er­a­tions, monu­ments as mag­ni­fi­cent as the Pyramids. The twen­ti­eth cen­tury has pro­duced sites that will stand in human memory for all time. Preservation of mater­ial on the Moon means that Tranquility Base will sur­pass Botany Bay or Plymouth Rock as her­it­age site in the future. As I write the probes will cross / are cross­ing / have crossed the helio­pause (no-one’s entirely sure – there’s not enough data) mak­ing them the first arte­facts to enter inter­stel­lar space. There is a sci­entific sig­ni­fic­ance in this, but is there social sig­ni­fic­ance in the space pro­gramme that we’re missing?

Voyager 1

Voyager Probe. Image cour­tesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Alice Gorman, aka Dr Space Junk, thinks so. She’s been research­ing the rela­tion­ship between the British and the Europeans as an example of mod­ern day colo­nial rela­tions. She has also made an excel­lent argu­ment for the pre­ser­va­tion of much of what we would call space junk in a radio inter­view. It would be hard to dis­agree with her.

Music to Titan cover

Music2Titan wanted to put French pop a very long way away.

There must be a lot to be said about the archae­ology of colo­ni­al­ism and space-exploration. The ill-fated Beagle2 mis­sion proudly boas­ted that it was “the British led explor­a­tion of Mars” and even had a Britpop call sign. The follow-up was Music2Titan a mis­sion to place French pop music fur­ther away from human ears than ever before. A laud­able aim*. It also had some sci­entific equip­ment to do stuff as it landed. The web­site equates the track No Love with “ques­tions linked to the con­quest and the exodus of space: “What will we export there? Our dust­bins, our fast-food, our know­ledge, Wall Street, Che Guevara, the Mona Lisa, Bart Simpson…?” There is a lack of decent nightclubs on Titan, and if alien life does come by it would prob­ably skip Titan and head to Earth. So what does the evolving cul­tural after­thought say about our society’s rela­tion­ship with the concept of space explor­a­tion and science?

As for Voyager: ima­gine we could pre­serve the first ever ocean going boat and observe it at work. Would there be an uproar if someone decided to aban­don it to save four mil­lion dol­lars a year? The first inter­stel­lar probes are sail­ing into the great expanse. They can provide sci­entific data that no other probe is cur­rent in a pos­i­tion to do. They are a time cap­sule of the dawn of space age. With the empti­ness of space they will be as per­fectly con­served as we could hope for any­thing to be. Are they his­toric arte­facts or space junk?

*So long as we get to keep Serge Gainsbourg’s stuff.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

2 Responses

  1. badger says:

    exactly! i embrace pop cul­ture enthu­si­ast­ic­ally, yet even i see some­thing per­verse in the atti­tude towards the grow­ing ambi­val­ence to genu­ine human achievement.

  1. November 21, 2005

    If we demol­ished the Pyramids would any­one notice?

    […] Another advant­age of being in Leicester is that you don’t know who is going to drop in. On Friday it was John Campbell from JCU Cairns. He’s been work­ing with Alice Gorman on the Space Heritage prob­lem since WAC 5. Perhaps the biggest prob­lem is get­ting people to recog­nise there’s a space her­it­age problem. […]