As the Voyager spacecraft enter interstellar space, Jake Euker asks the 1970s gymnast how it feels to go beyond the solar system
I noticed a news item recently reporting that on August 15 of this year the Voyager I spacecraft reached a point one hundred astronomical units from the sun. To put it in lay terms, Voyager I, which has already traveled farther from Earth than any other man-made object, is now one hundred times more distant from the sun than we are.
The progress of Voyager I and II has been of some interest to me since a certain day in March of 1991, when I met my friends Michael, Sanda, Sharon, Jeff, Kevin, and Paul for lunch at the dreary, first-floor café in the Rhatigan Student Center at Wichita State University. My friends Sanda, Sharon, Jeff, Kevin, and Paul were all associated with the university in one way or another at the time, but Michael, like me, only went there every once in awhile, hoping to run into the others.
Because I tape-recorded it, I can recount the details of that lunch with pinpoint accuracy. The conversation when I arrived had to do with outer space. Michael was saying that he had been driving around in his pick-up truck one day recently when he began to worry a little about being abducted by space aliens. This was because he had only two cigarettes left; he explained that, because he imagined that being abducted by space aliens was a stressful experience, he would want to have at least a full pack with him it happened, and maybe more. We all thought about that for a minute. Jeff wondered whether the aliens would let him smoke aboard their spaceship. Sharon, who teaches an English unit for first-semester foreign students, said that space aliens had been a topic in her class lately. She said that it frustrates her because she keeps asking her students if they believe in life in outer space, and that they all just keep smiling and nodding politely. Sharon has an Irish accent and speaks softly and very sincerely; her voice, I thought, sounded like a propaganda broadcast from elsewhere. I imagined her asking, "Do you believe in life in outer space?" and guessed that her first-semester foreign students had thought she might be from outer space herself. As punishment, she said, she makes them free write on the subject.
Sharon then produced a book called Voyage to Jupiter from her backpack. Voyage to Jupiter was published by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1980 and has to do with the Voyager I and II missions. It's full of information, but what caught my eye at the time was a list on page 29 called "Voyager Record Photograph Index." The text accompanying the list explained that, because the Voyager spacecraft will be only the third and fourth human artifacts to escape entirely from our solar system, a record of various sounds and images from Earth had been included on board, stored in analog on twelve-inch gold-plated copper disks. (I remember that, among the music included, only Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" represented the rock era; I've given it a lot of thought in the fifteen intervening years, and I believe I would have chosen Sonic Youth's "Teenage Riot" instead.) The list of photographs contained something like 130 items. Scanned, it read something like this: calibration circle, solar location map, Mars, DNA structure, fertilized ovum, Heron Island, seashell (Xancidae), Titan Centaur launch, Cathy Rigby, supermarket, Toronto Airport, x-ray of hand, Taj Mahal. I read it out loud that way.
"Cathy Rigby?" Sanda asked.
Kevin pointed out that at the time of the Voyager launches, in the seventies, Cathy Rigby had been very much in the public eye, having won America 's heart as the highest-scoring American gymnast in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
Sanda said, "But what about that other one?"
"Jill Kinmont," I volunteered.
"No," she said. Sanda is very sensitive to the occurrence of nationalism. She said, "Nadia Comaneci."
I couldn't stop thinking about the Voyager spacecraft and their analog photo albums that day in 1991: Where were they headed? Where were they now? Voyage to Jupiter had informed me that their primary missions were to study Jupiter, naturally, plus Saturn, but I couldn't get this business about the spacecraft leaving our solar system out of my mind.
So I called up NASA. There I spoke with a man named Jim Doyle, who then worked in the Public Information Office and who could answer questions about Voyager I and II off the top of his head. I asked him if, in 1991, the spacecraft had escaped our solar system yet.
"That depends on how you define 'solar system,'" Mr. Doyle said. "If you mean, 'When will they pass beyond the orbit of Neptune?' then they've already done that. But if you include the solar wind and how far that goes — we don't know that yet. There's a barrier called 'heliopause' that we're looking for, which is the end of the sun's influence. Voyager should get there some time within the next twenty years."
And then? I asked.
"Well, next they'll probably encounter the Ort Cloud. Do you know about the Ort Cloud?" I didn't. Mr. Doyle explained. He said that the Ort Cloud is a massive, theoretical cloud of bodies from which comets come, and that it's located — if that's the word — one-half to one full light year from the sun. Traveling at forty thousand miles per hour, the Voyagers should reach the Ort Cloud in twenty thousand years.
And then they'll become part of the Ort Cloud, I guessed.
"No," Mr. Doyle said. "They should pass through OK."
So what happens eventually? I asked. Where do the spacecraft end up?
"Well, eventually they'll forever circle the center of the galaxy," Mr. Doyle answered. "Just like the solar system."
By "the galaxy," Mr. Doyle had of course meant our galaxy, the Milky Way, and by "forever" he had meant for all eternity. These are big concepts: the absolute magnitude of the Milky Way, I learned, can't even be measured, although astronomical convention places it at -20.5 — and while I haven't got even the faintest glimmer of an idea what that might mean, - 20.5! Jesus! That must be big. The center of it, where Voyager I and II will circle forever, must be a long, long, long ways away. As for "eternity," well, forget about it; contemplating it for more than a few minutes at a time makes me feel as though I need to go back to bed.
Everything about the Voyager I and II missions entails dimensions that overwhelm me, and I'm not even involved with it. So how, I wondered, must Cathy Rigby feel? It's her image that's slated to arrive at the galaxy's center, an inscrutable 7.94±0.42 kiloparsecs away, and to circle there for eternity, an infinite amount of time.
I've been mulling all this over since reading the news story about Voyager I recently, and now I called Cathy Rigby. At the time of the Voyager launches, in 1977, Ms. Rigby had competed in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics and in 1970 became the first American to win a medal in the World Gymnastics Championships. Throughout the seventies, Ms. Rigby was an American icon, propelled to stardom not only by her gymnastics accomplishments but also her freshness and charm. As of 1977, it seemed to me, her propulsion to stardom was literal rather than metaphorical.
Ms. Rigby, who asked that I call her Cathy, spoke with me from her Los Angeles County home. I asked how she had initially gotten word of the Voyagers' photographic disks.
"I got a call from a friend in Washington many years ago," Cathy said, "and my friend said, 'Oh, by the way, did you know they sent a picture of you aboard the Voyager?' And I said no, and that's all I ever heard. I've never gotten any official information about it." Cathy said that she's never seen a list of the images included on the plates aboard the Voyagers, and I told her that there were an African bushman and a breast-feeding woman with her baby but that she and Jane Goodall were the only individuals on the plates who were identified by name.
Cathy explained that in 1977 she had retired from gymnastics and was married with a child. She had begun to train for the theater. (She has since had successes with productions of Peter Pan and Annie, Get Your Gun, and she worked for many years as a commentator for ABC.) But regarding the unfathomable surprise tribute that befell her that year she said, "You couldn't expect it. It was such an unexpected honor."
According to the August press release from NASA, Mr. Doyle's predictions had been correct and Voyager I is now in the heliosheath, a zone at the very outer edge of our solar system where the influence of our sun wanes; where Voyager I travels, the sun is no longer a major presence but rather a distant point of light, like other stars. "Voyager I," the press release continues, "is literally venturing into the great unknown."
I read this to Cathy.
"Isn't that bizarre?" she asked.
For a moment I wondered if she thought it was a little bit creepy, as I was afraid I might were it an image of me embarking for eternity into "the great unknown." But when she spoke her voice conveyed wonderment more than any kind of unease. "The thought of having information about you pass beyond the solar system… Every now and then I think about it and I don't even know what to think really. It's such an amazing thing."