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New Horizons Doesn’t Speak for Humanity, But It Does Say Something About a Dark Time for America

New Horizons with flag emblazoned

Here's an op-ed I wrote that pretty much everyone made clear they don't want to publish so I'm sharing it here now while New Horizons is still in the heliosphere.

In 2016, after nine years and three billion miles in space, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made its flyby of Pluto, giving all of us on Earth a stunning first look at the former ninth planet of the solar system. With New Horizons’ primary mission over, it was decided to send the craft to investigate another object in the Kuiper Belt—2014 MU69, the controversially-nicknamed “Ultima Thule”—which it did on New Year’s Day this year. Now, New Horizons will sail on and, eventually, it will reach interstellar space. But unlike Pioneers 10 & 11 and Voyagers 1 & 2, if New Horizons bumps into any flying saucers out there, it won’t have much to say about us: there is no message from humanity to extraterrestrial life included on board.

Why wasn’t New Horizons given a chance to say hello for us? To answer that question, you need to know a little bit about the messages that did make it onto crafts that have traveled out past Pluto. In 1972, Pioneers 10 and 11 were fitted with engraved plaques that through basic images tell where to find our planet and what a naked man and naked woman standing next to the craft would look like. When the Voyager space probes were launched in 1977, both were equipped with the Voyager Record: gold-plated copper records that contain music, text, greetings, images, and sounds meant to summarize all life on the planet Earth. Both projects were directed by Carl Sagan, and put together by small teams of scientists he selected.

But neither the Pioneer or Voyager messages made everyone happy. Depending on what side of the political divide critics were on, these messages were either not inclusive enough, or they were too risqué. NASA wound up taking the brunt of these criticisms. When it came time to launch New Horizons, project lead Alan Stern decided that, to avoid controversy, the spacecraft wouldn’t carry any message intended to speak for humanity. Ironically, it was Alan Stern who fully endorsed using the name Ultima Thule for MU69 despite knowing the term’s Neo-Nazi associations, so there goes being uncontroversial.

That New Horizons was meant to be boring helps explain the things it does have stowed on board: an American flag, a stamp, two quarters, an American flag pin, and two CD-ROMs: one with the names of over 400,000 space fans on it, and another that contains head shots of the entire New Horizons team. Officially, these objects are called “mementos.” It also contains a piece of SpaceShipOne, with a plaque honoring it as the first successfully piloted spaceflight by a privately-owned company, a nod to a future where NASA and the United States government have a lot less to do with putting humans into space. If that comes across as a little depressing, consider that New Horizons is also carrying the cremains of Pluto’s discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh. It’s a nice tribute, but one that also makes the spacecraft a flying urn.

This cargo doesn’t say all that much about humanity as a whole, but there has been an effort to change all that. In 2014, Jon Lomberg, the visual designer for the Voyager record, lobbied NASA to have a follow-up, the One Earth Message, uploaded to New Horizons’ computer NASA agreed to do it if Lomberg could raise the funds, but after two unsuccessful crowdfunding attempts, the One Earth Message doesn’t seem likely to ever happen. Recently, New Horizons’ team gathered a list of names and text greetings over the internet to send “to Ultima Thule.” Those greetings and the details of how they’ll be vetted haven’t been made publicly available, but in all likelihood, they won’t be representative of the people of Earth.

If all this amounts to New Horizons going without an intergalactic message from humanity, maybe that’s not so terrible. There are good reasons why the bric-à-brac artifacts on New Horizons should speak for themselves.

The Voyager record was a product of the politics of its time. Launched in the Cold War, Voyager’s message from the Earth to the Universe was a triumphant American creation, a flourish right before crossing the space race finish line. New Horizons is a product of a much darker time—the presidency of George W. Bush. The mission itself was approved in 2002, in the lead-up to the Iraq War. By the time New Horizons launched in 2006, America had already invaded Iraq, overthrown its government, entrenched itself in a civil war, and fostered all the conditions that have made the Middle East of today more unstable than it ever was before. The mementos on New Horizons perfectly suit that reactionary moment in the United States history. They are a George W. Bush idea of what America has to share with the universe: flag-waving, loose change, privatization, and mourning. Leaving the New Horizons cultural load as is should be a reminder of America’s stunted time under his administration, and a reminder that no amount of cute puppy paintings or photos with Michelle Obama should rehabilitate his image.

Both the Voyagers and Pioneers will carry on for us, a mission that may last one of Carl Sagan’s trademark billion years. New Horizons will do that too, but with less eloquence, without art or poetry or music. Should the same aliens who find Voyager later come across New Horizons, they may want to visit Earth and make contact with us, if only to ask us one question: “What happened to you?”

[Photo credit: NASA. Public domain image, found here]

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