Into Space

20 April 2017 Andrew P Street

Into Space

I have only one tattoo. It’s on my left forearm and looks like a stretched and distorted star.

It’s a representation of the pulsar map sent into deep space with the NASA probes, Voyager 1 and 2, in 1977.

It shows where our sun sits relative to 13 nearby pulsars, creating a universal calling card as to where humanity is positioned in the cosmos. The distances are in binary on the disc (although the tattoo doesn’t go to that level of detail), meaning it should be decipherable by any civilisation advanced enough to find Voyager in the first place.

I got it in 2012, three months after I turned 40 and a few days after I overtook my father for the total number of days spent on earth.

Like most children, I worshipped my father. He was a brilliant man with a PhD in chemical engineering. He had a deep and genuine love of science and in learning for the sheer joy of it, which he instilled in his three children.

He was an early adopter of technology, too: we were the first family I knew to own a computer. It was a TRS-80 II, which Dad was constantly modifying. When we eventually took it apart to clean his study, no-one could work out how to put it back together again.

More than that, though, he was a gentle, loving and attentive father. He and I were close, and as role models go, Peter William Street was a hard man in whom to find fault.

His wild enthusiasm for science was given full expression when the ABC started screening the then-groundbreaking astronomy, physics and cosmology series Cosmos in 1981, created and presented by US astronomer Carl Sagan.

Dad assiduously taped each episode on our clunky VHS video recorder and he and I would watch and re-watch every episode over and over again, my nine-year-old brain whizzing with elements and relativity and, most of all, the probes sent out to the solar system; most notably Voyager 1 and 2, which visited Jupiter and were only then starting to send back the first stunningly beautiful close-up photos of Saturn.

We watched and rewatched that episode (‘Travellers’ Tales’, incidentally) and speculated what Voyager 2 would discover on the other planets in its Grand Tour through our solar system. After Saturn, Voyager 1’s trajectory was already sending it away from the planets and out toward interstellar space.

I aspired to be an astronomer myself, or at least some sort of astrophysicist, and started choosing subjects to that end when I entered high school in 1985 – just as Dad started getting these strange bruises and a bone-crushing tiredness that wouldn’t go away

By January 1986, when Voyager 2 was making its closest approach to Uranus, treatment for his leukaemia was going well and we dared hope that this was a serious but temporary glitch, a bit of bad programming in Dad’s cells that could be fixed by patching in some code. By early 1987, we knew that it was hopelessly corrupted. 

When Dad died I was inconsolable. Not only had I lost him, I lost all my ability to comprehend physics and maths. Maybe it was because I was actually pretty lousy at science but had a father who was an excellent teacher, or maybe I just couldn’t study them without feeling his absence too keenly. Either way, I started to fail my science courses even as I aced the humanities subjects for which I never studied.

I started using my middle name, before shortening it to the initial, as a way to keep him with me as my life went on without him. And the Voyagers, now deep in interplanetary space and only occasionally sending back messages to Earth, continued on too.

In 1989, as Voyager 2 sent back the first ever pictures of Neptune, my mother remarried and I acquired a stepdad and three step-siblings. The following year I went to uni to study English and philosophy. My life was heading off on a different trajectory, away from science.

In October 2012 Voyager 1 had just officially left the solar system, more than 18 billion kilometres from earth, and entered the heliosheath where the solar wind from the sun and the pressure of the interstellar vacuum balance out. From there, the sun is just one of many bright stars against the blackness of space.

And, as I wondered how best to mark the occasion where I moved out from my father’s long shadow, there was an obvious symbol that represented where I was, and the distance I had travelled.

The pulsar map became a reminder of my place in the cosmos, and of something Dad and I shared and loved. But it was also a recognition that Voyager and Dad exist a long way away from where I am – one in space, the other in time – and that neither are ever coming back.

And there’s still a faint echo of my father, a tiny signal sent from far away, in my newborn son James Peter. These journeys never really end.

» Andrew P Street (@AndrewPStreet) is a journalist and Fairfax columnist. His second book, The Curious Story of Malcolm Turnbull: the Incredible Shrinking Man in the Top Hat, is out now.

This article first appeared in Ed#534 of The Big Issue.