I’m from Houston. I do not live there now. But, I grew up there. My entire extended family lives there. I went to medical school and did my residency there. I have many friends and colleagues who live and work in Houston.
As I write this, Hurricane Harvey and the flooding aftermath are still wreaking havoc. Property has been damaged beyond description. Lives have been upended. My extended family is displaced, though safe. And, it’s not over.
Still, the world has witnessed events beyond nature’s fury.
So far, loss of life has been minimal. It’s premature to know precisely what the loss of life will be until the waters recede. But, for a city the size of Houston (and the adjacent towns on the Gulf coast), that’s a miracle.
No less important, neighbors have helped neighbors. Strangers have helped strangers. Everyone has stepped up. No questions asked. If you’re in trouble, help is on the way. Just signal.
It’s humanity at its best. We do not often see such exemplary behavior. But, in times of crisis, sometimes such benevolence blossoms. It’s on full display now.
The week before, I saw a PBS documentary on the Voyager Spacecraft. Two Voyager spacecrafts were launched 40 years ago. Voyager 1 studied Jupiter and Saturn. Voyager 2 did the same, then explored Uranus and Neptune. The pictures were spectacular. Data on these planets (and their moons) changed how we think of these bodies. When Voyager 2 finished taking pictures of Neptune, it was turned 180 degrees to photograph our solar system. Earth was less than the size of a single pixel.
The two crafts have now left our solar system. They still transmit data. The team is still functioning.
Both spacecraft also have adequate electrical power and attitude control propellant to continue operating until around 2025, after which there may not be available electrical power to support science instrument operation. At that time, data return and spacecraft operations will cease.
If not destroyed, it will continue.
In about 40,000 years, Voyager 1 will be within 1.6 light years of AC+79 3888, which is a star in the constellation of Camelopardalis. In 40,000 years Voyager 2 will be within 1.7 light years from star Ross 248 and in 296,000 years it will pass within 4.6 light years of Sirius which is the brightest star in the night sky.
Both craft carry a 12-inch golden phonograph record that contains pictures and sounds of Earth along with symbolic directions on the cover for playing the record and data detailing the location of our planet. The record is intended as a combination of a time capsule and an interstellar message to any civilization, alien or far-future human, that may recover either of the Voyagers.
The Voyager spacecrafts are also a humbling reminder of what humanity is capable of when we march forward together.
People helping people in need. People imagining impossible missions and making them happen. While it may be a stretch to compare the recovery efforts of Hurricane Harvey with the Voyager Program, they each reflect the best of humanity – a welcome relief the tsunami of negative stories that typically passes as news.