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The Power of the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ Three Decades Later

Now, after more than three years of writing about space, I still think the “pale blue dot” isn’t much to look at. But when I sit with it and really think about what’s inside the frame, I am in awe.

Looking at this distant view of Earth, I feel the same way I do when I watch astronauts spacewalk outside of the International Space Station on NASA’s livestreams. The camera quality is grainy, the sound is staticky, and astronauts rattle off indecipherable jargon in serious voices. It is, if you watch seven straight hours of it, pretty boring. But when you consider what the astronauts are really doing—not the slow and meticulous work of turning bolts and replacing batteries—the experience becomes something else. Human beings figured out how to build a home for themselves in the cold vacuum of space, filled with everything they need to survive, from breathable air to streaming TV and snacks, and now they’re dangling off the side of the whole thing as it travels at 17,000 miles per hour, and the only thing keeping them from floating into oblivion is a couple of fabric tethers. It is extraordinary. “Pale Blue Dot” is remarkable in a similar way—a display, however fuzzy, of humankind’s capacity to catapult away from our planet in an attempt to understand everything else.

This week, I emailed Amanda, who lives in Berlin now, to ask her why she decided to get the tattoo; she’d told me it was meaningful for her the day she got it, but I couldn’t remember the specifics. “I wanted to have a permanent reminder of how small my daily problems and heartbreaks were in the scheme of the universe,” she said. “I wanted to be able to look down and think, Oh yeah, none of this matters, so just try to be kind and grateful and enjoy yourself.”

It is a lovely perspective, this view of outer space as salve, and it could be quite effective; after all, there’s no bigger picture than the entire universe. But more often, especially these days, I’ve heard a darker interpretation of our smallness in the face of celestial forces. A small corner of the internet invokes the workings of the cosmos as a way of dismissing depressing headlines here on Earth. Yes, everything is awful, such people half-joke, but who cares? We’re all going to perish during the heat death of the universe, anyway. Didn’t you hear our sun will collapse in on itself in less than 5 billion years? Or that the Milky Way is expected to collide with another galaxy even sooner?

At the risk of sounding too earnest—but what else are anniversaries for?—I hope “Pale Blue Dot” inspires the opposite. Believing that one-10th of a pixel on a screen is going to bring people comfort is foolish, of course. But it’s something.

And where is Voyager 1, the machine that provided this modicum of peace? Even farther from us, in the space between stars, growing weaker each year. Some of its scientific instruments are still functioning, collecting data on the few phenomena of interstellar space that can actually be detected that far out, such as cosmic rays and magnetic fields. The cameras have been off since 1990; they use up a lot of energy. Candy Hansen, the NASA scientist who helped set up the shot for “Pale Blue Dot,” once told me that turning them back on again “would literally kill every other instrument on the spacecraft.”

Space agencies have far more advanced spacecraft now, capable of capturing worlds in high resolution. Hollywood spoils us with vivid special effects in big-budget space movies. By comparison, the Voyager photo doesn’t dazzle the eye. But it can, in some circumstances, soothe the rest of us.

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