The greatest event of this past two weeks was the fly-by of Pluto by the American spacecraft New Horizons.
There was of course the increase in our knowledge of this Solar System, which will be our home for decades—probably centuries—to come, barring really sensational technological advances. What in June was just a fuzzy near-featureless blob we now know in some detail as a landscape: mountains, valleys, plains.
It's all made from ices, of course: nitrogen gas and methane gas frozen solid, and good old water ice. You're a long way from the Sun out there: a summer's day on Pluto clocks in at around minus 380°F. There is no sign of life, and it would be astounding if there were.
There is every reason to suppose that long, long after Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Kim Kardashian, and, yes, even Donald Trump have been utterly forgotten, long after you and I have returned to dust, human beings—or whatever supersedes us—will still remember this as the time when we first got good images of Pluto and its principal moon. This is true discovery: a real, major advance in knowledge.
It's been especially thrilling for me. From way back in childhood, seven or eight years old, I loved astronomy. I knew all the planets and their moons. Saturn's moons were my favorites, with those lovely evocative names I liked to murmur to myself as I lay in bed at night: Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea, Titan, Hyperion, Iapetus, Phoebe.
Back then they were all fuzzy blobs. Then out went the probes: Mariner, Pioneer, Voyager, Galileo, Cassini. After 1989, when one of the Voyagers flew by Neptune, there was only one fuzzy blob left: Pluto. Now, 26 years on, Pluto's dropped its veil. All eight of our sister planets have yielded up their secrets—their major secrets, at any rate—and my lifetime encompassed the whole process.
There is a social aspect, too, though I think a more melancholy one. The people who accomplished these technical marvels were that great tribe of American engineers who came up and flourished in the middle-to-later twentieth century. They had predecessors, of course: Bell, Edison, the Wright brothers, all the great tinkerers and inventors that came before and inspired them. Collectively, though, that great midcentury crop was like nothing that had gone before. They won a tremendous war; they held off and at last out-engineered a powerful adversary; they built the infrastructure for a marvelous civilization, the envy of the world; they put men on the Moon. (Pictured above—the Apollo 11 mission control room in 1969 seems to have lacked diversity hires.)
Now they have faded away. Probably the Pluto fly-by was their last hurrah.
We shall not be encouraged to remember them: They were too white, male, and European—a shocking, shameful thing to the multicultural sensibilities of today. Well, the hell with those sensibilities. I shall remember them, and I honor them now for the marvels they gave us.
The stars, a jolly company,
I envied, straying late and lonely;
And cried upon their revelry:
"O white companionship! You only
In love, in faith unbroken dwell,
Friends radiant and inseparable!"
Light-heart and glad they seemed to me
And merry comrades (even so
God out of Heaven may laugh to see
The happy crowds; and never know
That in his lone obscure distress
Each walketh in a wilderness).
But I, remembering, pitied well
And loved them, who, with lonely light,
In empty infinite spaces dwell,
Disconsolate. For, all the night,
I heard the thin gnat-voices cry,
Star to faint star, across the sky.