Okay, okay, that sounds a little ridiculous. But I invite you to overthink the significance of the name-filled microchip, anyway.
As the deadline to submit names drew to a close last week, I messaged people who had tweeted about participating and asked them why they did. Some said adding their name to the Parker Solar Probe seemed like the only way they could travel to space themselves. “I think the main reason would be the knowledge that if I myself couldn’t make it into space then at least my name could,” said Shaun Lawson, who lives in the United Kingdom.
Rydon Samaroo, of Coral Springs, Florida, felt the same. “I wanted to participate because I’ve always been fascinated with exploring space since before I can remember,” Samaroo said. “I may never be an astronaut but in my small way, I was able to contribute to pushing the final frontier.”
Some wanted to leave behind a legacy. “Seemed like a cool idea to get my name to live on as my husband and I aren’t having kids,” said Nicole Abuhakmeh, who lives in Pennsylvania.
And others saw their participation as a lasting achievement. “I suppose as an average person who did not accomplish anything great in life, sending my name to the sun will give me a false feeling that I did something great,” said Ali Mudarris, also of Pennsylvania. “To be honest, I didn’t think about it, but when you asked me why this is what comes to my mind. I wanted to feel that I did something big.”
The reasons varied, but they were held together by a common thread: the desire to leave a mark. The people who submitted their names to the Parker Solar Probe had the same motivations as travelers who etch their initials into trees or the sides of mountains. As the prisoners in the Tower of London who chiseled their final words into the stone walls. Even as that teenager who carved his name into a 3,500-year-old Egyptian temple and got in trouble for it. “I was here,” they declared.
This need, to record our existence on something bound to outlive us, has existed for millennia. “Eventually, there’s going to be no overt reminder of your time on this Earth, and I think it’s very difficult for people to accept,” says Mark Harris, the author of Grave Matters, an exploration of non-conventional burial practices. “We never really fully embrace the idea that we’re going to die. Maybe we accept it intellectually, but at the end—probably when we start thinking less intellectually and more emotionally—we just really are not comfortable with our mortality and maybe, beyond that, with what we’ve accomplished with our lives.”
In the 1970s, people started taking this desire to space. The Golden Record, a collection of sights and sounds from Earth, was essentially one giant postcard shouting to anyone who might listen, we were here! This year, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy carried a Tesla with a little label announcing it was “made on Earth by humans.”