When we talk about travelling to the stars, we often talk in terms of technological development and pushing past the current limits bounding the horizons of space science. However, one thing a space-bound race will always have a hard time hurdling are the strictures on their own understanding of themselves and their culture.
Terrestrial earthlings and space travelers must be categorically different entities even if they’re part of the same species. The courage to traverse the stars must mirror the boundlessness of space itself — how can one cross that void without becoming a void and emptying oneself of earthbound prejudices, expectations, superstitions and beliefs? It’s the only way.
When people ask why we’ve never gone back to the Moon or why we’ve never put a man on Mars, tell them to look at the small mindedness that surrounded the Pioneer plaque and then look no further. It turns out that there is more than gravity keeping humanity’s feet on the ground: self-loathing, prudishness, war paranoia and the fear of sex. Damn Interesting explains:
During it’s long journey through the universe, should any intelligent beings come across Pioneer 10 (or Pioneer 11, which carries a copy of the same plaque), they’ll be greeted with a pictorial engraving from humanity in the form of a 6 by 9-inch gold anodized plaque bolted to the spacecraft’s frame. The plaque design attempts to convey as much data about humans and the Earth as possible using simple line diagrams, in the hope that whatever beings may find it can learn whence and from where the probe originated.
Among other things, it depicts a naked man and woman, with the right hand of the man raised as a sign of good will. It also indicates the layout of our solar system, as well as our sun’s position relative to a number of pulsars, so that our location can be triangulated from fixed points in space.
When the plaque’s design was revealed to the general public, a number of people were upset about it for various reasons. Because it depicts nudity, there was a huge uproar about NASA “wasting” taxpayer money to send “obscenities” into space. Clearly, the people voicing such pseudo-moral objections were “morons.” Or rather, they had the unfortunate character flaw of being unable to separate an obscene image from a benign, scientifically useful drawing.
There were also many who criticized the complexity of the message, indicating that it would not be immediately understandable to a completely alien civilization. This is certainly true, but the plaque’s designers did not intend for the message to be instantly detectable, only for it to be precise and informative. If found, its discoverers can spend as much time as necessary to decode its message, even if it takes generations.
Still other critics warned that showing a map to the probe’s planet of origin may invite a hostile race to find and attack the Earth. This risk does exist, but even in the extremely unlikely event that the first star a Pioneer probe encounters (two million years from now) is home to a hostile race bent on our destruction, they must first A) detect the fast-moving piece of space debris, B) capture it, C) decode the plaque’s message, D) locate our planet, and E) traverse the distance. This means that at the soonest, such aggressors would be arriving in about three million years.
I have little doubt that space is ready and waiting for the human race to become an interplanetary species. The nagging question that still remains is when will human beings be ready for space?