In February, 2003, I read about the passing of an old acquaintance. Pioneer 10 had fallen silent. Its weakened batteries finally gave out as it edged inexorably out of our solar system into deep space. At one point it had travelled farther from Earth than any other man made object. It was an ungainly 500 lb, titanium orb projecting antennae and booms. It was designed to carry out 15 experiments and, in the unlikely event that it was captured, to inform alien civilizations about Earth. It carried a plate with an engraving of a man, a woman and a map of the solar system. The latter was astronomer and noted atheist Carl Sagan's idea; I wonder if God chuckled.
I felt a real sadness at the thought ot it floating alone and helpless further and further from its creators into the icy black interstellar void. After all, I had been there at its fiery debut: On the evening of March 2, 1972, I sat on a wooden deck with my uncle's wife, Eileen, overlooking the pounding surf at the Casino in Indialantic. The Atlantic shore traced a gentle crescent to Cape Canaveral 25 miles north. It was a perfect spot to watch a night launch, and at the time the Casino was just about my favorite bar in the whole country.
I was on a two week visit to Florida from my position as a psychologist with the Illinois Dept. Of Mental Health. I was vacationing and looking for a job. I was staying with my uncle, Carl Lundblom, who I referred to as Unk, and his first of four wives, Eileen. On the night of the launch, Unk was flying back to Patrick Air Force Base on a C-130 from Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. Unk was a GS-14 and in charge of supply for the down range missle tracking stations.
Four nights after the launch, I would meet my first and only wife at the Back Door, a nightclub in Winter Park next to the Rollins College campus. It was an eventful time in my life.
At about 8:49 p.m. the horizon lit up with ignition and the flash of the liftoff. The drinkers at the Casino softly applauded. Most either worked in the space program or had friends and relatives who did. Because Pioneer was going where no man made object had ever gone before, it was launched by a three stage Atlas/Centaur rocket. At that time it was the fastest man-made object ever, achieving a velocity of over over 32,000 mph. Its launch speed was impressive. Still, we were able to follow its red exhaust down range for ten minutes or more before it finally disappeared over the ocean. I knew that I was watching history in the making, and I had some sense that this event would haunt my thoughts forever.
Pioneer crossed the orbit of the moon in just 11 hours. Three years earlier it had taken the Apollo astronauts several days to make the same journey. In just 12 weeks it crossed the orbit of Mars.
Things change and move on. The Casino burned down less than a year later. The Back Door is still there, after a fashion. Its building has housed at least three other bars or restaurants since the 1970s.
In November, 1972, I moved to Florida and began an off and on five year courtship with my wife. And Pioneer continued on its trek. In December, 1973, it examined Jupiter and his moons. It skirted the Jovian cloud tops and transmitted the first close up images of the giant planet. At Halloween, 1977, my wife and I began living together and 15 months later we wed. She and I and my stepson became a family. And the little metal orb with tales of distant Earth continued on its infinite journey.
In September, 1979, I became a Christian and stopped hanging around in bars. That same month Pioneer made a rendevous with Saturn. Oddly enough, Saturn is the planet in astrology that rules time, change and my birth sign, Capricorn. Also, during one night's dream in early 1980, I clearly saw the numbers 3 and 2. I knew there was some significance to those numbers but I did not know what. I wondered if they represented a date.
On February 1, 1986, my dad died in Ohio and my mother came to live with us. Eight months later, after nine years together, my wife decided she wanted a divorce.
In 1993, I stopped smoking and started attending church every week. On September 14, 1994, four days after his 74th birthday, Unk died. I learned about his passing six weeks later from his wife. We had not been close for several years because his fourth and final wife did not like my mother. Still, it was a painful loss. And Pioneer, like the Energizer Bunny, just kept on going.
From time to time a note in the newspaper would annouce its itinerary. Its scientific mission officially ended in 1997. Voyager 1, launched in 1977, has since broken Pioneer's records, and is on a trajectory out of the solar system in an opposite direction. But with each note about deep space probes my thoughts return to March of 1972. It was an eventful time in my life.
On January 23, 2000, my mother passed into eternity. She had existed in a nursing home for over four years slowly fading. She waited until the new millennium, though I'm not sure she was aware of that fact. Again my life changed forever, but Pioneer just kept heading out.
On March 2, 2002, contact was made with Pioneer to celebrate its 30th anniversary, and a few weeks later in April there was one last contact before it finally fell silent. Its batteries had degraded to the point where they could no longer support its telemetry, and so the attempt at contact in February, 2003, proved futile. But, like Old Man River, Pioneer 10 just keeps on rolling along. It is pointed toward the great red star in Taurus, Aldebaran, and in several million years will be in its vicinity. Me, I'm sort of stumbling along into the new millennium and into my golden years.
Pioneer's journey away from its creators is kind of a metaphor for a descent into hell; someday, I hope that my trajectory will take me past Pioneer-10 and on an ascent toward my Creator. Perhaps, we will cross paths again.