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 Voyager 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?
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. 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.