The Engineers Who Can’t Quit Voyager

A copper record containing sounds of the Earth, greetings in 60 languages, songs of birds, whales and animals, is mounted onto Voyager 2. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

For the New York Times Magazine, Kim Tingley profiles the nine flight-team engineers of the 1977 Voyager mission, who have been putting off retirement to see through one of NASA’s most successful missions all the way to the end. They estimate Voyager will run out of energy by 2030 at the latest, marking the end of an era when deepest space was seen by the government, and the public at large, as a mystery worth exploring.

The two Voyager spacecraft famously carried a “golden record” to the deepest reaches of the universe, which contain sounds and images of Earth, selected by a committee helmed by Carl Sagan, should Voyager encounter any intelligent life. The mission was one of optimism and wonder. But with the end of the shuttle program in 2011, and NASA under threat of severe cuts from the Trump Administration, the wonder of space is under attack from those who would commodify it. What is the purpose of space if you can’t make money from it?

The mission quite possibly represents the end of an era of space exploration in which the main goal is observation rather than commercialization. In internal memos, Trump-administration advisers have referred to NASA’s traditional contractors as ‘‘Old Space’’ and proposed refocusing its budget on supporting the growth of the private ‘‘New Space’’ industry, Politico reported in February. ‘‘Economic development of space’’ will begin in near-Earth orbit and on the moon, according to the president’s transition team, with ‘‘private lunar landers staking out de facto ‘property rights’ for Americans on the moon, by 2020.’’

All explorations demand sacrifices in exchange for uncertain outcomes. Some of those sacrifices are social: how many resources we collectively devote to a given pursuit of knowledge. But another portion is borne by the explorer alone, who used to be rewarded with adventure and fame if not fortune. For the foreseeable future, Voyager seems destined to remain in the running for the title of Mankind’s Greatest Journey, which might just make its nine flight-team engineers — most of whom have been with the mission since the Reagan administration — our greatest living explorers. They also may be the last people left on the planet who can operate the spacecraft’s onboard computers, which have 235,000 times less memory and 175,000 times less speed than a 16-gigabyte smartphone. And while it’s true that these pioneers haven’t gone anywhere themselves, they are arguably every bit as dauntless as more celebrated predecessors. Magellan never had to steer a vessel from the confines of a dun-colored rental office, let alone stay at the helm long enough to qualify for a senior discount at the McDonald’s next door.

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