Ad astra per aspera

By Rachel Robson

On March 2, 1972, humankind did one of the most memorable things in our bloody and banal history. The spacecraft Pioneer 10 was launched.
Its task was to gather information about Jupiter and Saturn, and beam that data back to Earth. Remarkably, it was also intended to escape our solar system, to fly away and never return. Dreaming that this space probe might someday be discovered by intelligent extraterrestrials, Pioneer 10’s creators attached to it a gold plaque, illustrating what humans look like and where our planet is located.
The plaque shows the position of our sun relative to 14 pulsars and to the center of our galaxy. It shows the position of Earth relative to the other planets in our solar system. And it shows a naked man and woman, carefully drawn to reflect evolved human features, as of 1972. The man’s right hand is raised and open, symbolizing humanity’s peaceful intentions toward the eventual discoverers of the spacecraft.
Pioneer 10 was the first object ever sent into space bearing an explicit message to otherworldly species. We have since sent a few others—Pioneer 11 and Voyagers I and II. In every case, the message was the same: We are here. We come in peace.
This message is debatable, as the most cursory reading of human history shows. Has a day passed in our thousands of years of that was not marked with murder, torture and war?
When Pioneer 10 was launched, our nation was at war in Vietnam. As the craft completed its two-year Jupiter mission and headed to Saturn, Saigon fell. Crossing the orbit of Neptune in 1983, Pioneer 10 became the first man-made object to leave our solar system. Back on Earth, the Soviet Union and United States threatened each other with firepower sufficient to destroy all human life, several times over. Pioneer 10 kept phoning home, reporting its latest discoveries.
Regular signals from Pioneer 10 provided astronomers with an example of what an intelligent transmission from space might sound like. Scientists with SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, trained their radiotelescopes on Pioneer 10’s signals to practice distinguishing meaningful messages from the random noise that reverberates through space. On Earth, the killing never stopped. Hutus dismembered their Tutsi neighbors with machetes in Rwanda. Attempts at genocide resumed in the Balkans after a brief hiatus. Although it would still respond to telegraphed commands from home, in 1997 Pioneer 10 stopped sending signals on its own.
Pioneer 10 speeds ever farther from its home planet, with a plaque that speaks to our hopes for the future. The anodized gold tablet, designed by astronomers Carl Sagan and Frank Drake, could easily last for a billion years in the vacuum of space. That’s 10,000 times longer than Homo sapiens has existed. Given the uncertainties of life, and our penchant for violence, it is very possible that Pioneer 10 and its message will outlive the species that created it.
We will never hear a message from Pioneer 10 again. The last signal Pioneer 10 sent to us was received on January 22 this year. It did not respond to commands in February or March, and was subsequently declared lost by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. At that time, it was almost 8 billion miles—or 11 light hours—away.
We go to war, again, but Pioneer 10 is innocent of that. It makes no comment on Saddam Hussein or the “Shock and Awe” offensive. It is silent on the usual bloody business of human life. From the perspective of our short human lifespans, Pioneer 10 is practically immortal. Perhaps it will persist long enough to see humans fulfill the promise we sent out to the stars.
Pioneer 10 bears to an uncertain future a message so rare and beautiful it is hard to believe that it is our own: Here we are, the plaque conveys. We come in peace.

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