An inevitable consequence of the passage of time is the ultimate destruction of all people, places, and things from our history. As time goes on, people die, civilizations collapse, and cities crumble. The cultures and customs of the societies of the past are distant and unfamiliar to those in the present, and by being so will eventually disappear. Even our ideas, religions, philosophies, and politics will change and alter over time, until they have become something altogether different. The unfortunate result of this is that an observer of the past is given very little to work with and study. Because of the written word, we are able to glimpse at the events and characters of the past; reading historical accounts and primary source perspectives allows us to view a world which no longer exists. It is from these that much of our knowledge of the past is derived. Yet without these accounts, much of the past would forever be lost, and the vestiges of the ancient world which still remain today are in the process of decaying and disappearing. What will an observer from the far future know about our present time and our own past? Will any of the evidence that we have of the past survive?
We owe the destruction and decay of our past to a number of factors. The natural environment simply weathers away the architecture and geography of the past. Without maintenance, the ancient buildings and monuments we remember distant civilizations and deceased people with will eventually rust, corrode, or crumble. The actions of the people in our own time also cause this destruction. Building over ancient terrain and buildings and destroying or damaging historical landmarks and sites are only some ways in which our history is lost by our own hand. Constant changes in society, culture, and customs mean that the traditions of the past become unfamiliar, and eventually no longer practiced. Once these traditions are no longer widely practiced, they become a feature of the past, and eventually disappear all together.
While considering the loss of our history by all of these factors, we can come across a remarkable realization. There are some objects which humanity has produced which will never be lost to history. They will forever be a representation of humanity at a certain place and point in time. Impervious to the normal natural decay and human desecration which destroys much of our historical heritage, these objects could very well survive in their present condition for eons. For an observer in the far distant future, these may very well be the only surviving items of the human civilization. These objects are our space probes.
Littered across the bodies of our solar system and in orbit above and around them are humanity’s satellites and space probes. Our species has only explored outer space for the last half century, but during this time hundreds of these vessels have been sent to various places across our solar system. Some, such as the Pioneer spacecraft and the Voyager probes, have been flung into deep space on trajectories away from our Sun. These craft will travel interstellar space for hundreds of thousands of years. They will eventually become the most distant, and the longest lasting, record of the human civilization’s existence. In space, there is very little that could harm these crafts. Micrometeorites or other orbital collisions may damage them, but there is otherwise nothing which could destroy these ships. Unless they fall out of their orbits and crash into the planet they are orbiting, these probes could potentially be orbiting our world and the other worlds of the solar system long after humanity has disappeared.
This is an incredibly exciting and interesting thought. The second half of the 20th century and humanity’s first forays into space will, barring any human damage, remain forever in the same shape and form as we have left them. The Apollo capsules and hardware on the Moon, remains from the first Human landings in the 1960s and 1970s, still sit in the places where they were left. For any future observer looking at these sites, they will still see the ship, the American flag, and the bootprints which were imprinted on the lunar surface. They may know nothing about the astronauts who worked and lived on the Moon or the country which sent them there, but these future observers will be able to see in exact detail the incredible feat the humans of 1969 did, the hardware which allowed them to do it, and the condition they left it. No matter what time in the future someone might observe these sites, they will always see the same exact site, the same historical heritage.
This is the case too for probes and rovers landed on other planets. I wonder if the rovers landed on Mars will someday in the future serve as museums or landmarks, visited by the human inhabitants of Mars who are curious about mankind’s early exploration of the ‘Red planet’. It is incredibly likely that this will be the case. Will the landing craft we put on the Moon one day be landmarks to remind us of our first landing on another world? I believe so. The beauty of this is that these craft will, more than any other landmark of museum here on Earth, preserve the character of the time it came from. One glimpse can reveal the technical complexity of their hardware, more thorough study can reveal the purpose of the probe. Such observations demonstrate why and when these craft were built and sent into space, which in turn reveals the progress and development of our species.
The far future will remember little of the United States or of the 20th and 21st centuries. Eventually, the world will look and be nothing like how we know it to be today. However, the vessels we have sent into space over the last half century, and which we will continue to send into space, will exist then exactly like they do now. Eventually, they may very likely be the only thing to remember us by.