Fly Me to the Sun

Why more than 1 million people put their names on a mission to our nearest star

Figures on a beach at sunset
Firdia Lisnawati / AP

This summer, a NASA spacecraft will launch into space from the coast of Florida, headed for the sun. After making several flybys of Venus to slow itself down, the Parker Solar Probe will come within 4 million miles of the sun’s scorching surface, closer than any spacecraft in history.

NASA is never one to miss an opportunity to drum up publicity for upcoming space missions, especially the less flashy ones. Sending something to study the star we see every day may sound less thrilling, for example, than launching a mission to find exoplanets around 200,000 stars. So in March, the space agency announced a little campaign to promote the Parker Solar Probe: Send us your names and we’ll put them on a microchip inside a spacecraft bound for the sun. (They even got Star Trek actor William Shatner to help promote it.)

The call for names, which closed at the end of last week, received more than 1.1 million submissions, according to a spokesperson at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, which designed and built the Parker Solar Probe. On the surface, the campaign was little more than a quirky act to get the public interested in space exploration. But considered more deeply, it represents the human desire to find ways to outlive ourselves and our bodies, to be remembered once our time here on Earth is up.

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.”

As launches become more frequent and routine, so will the desire to send a piece of humanity along with them. It’s “the idea of wanting to matter,” says Phil Olson, a Virginia Tech professor who studies funeral practices. “Like your name, your life, your individuality meant something bigger than just your confines to this little planet. You matter beyond this.” And it’s much easier to do it now. Microchips can hold a lot more data than gold-plated copper disks.

The Parker Solar Probe won’t be around forever, however. NASA has targeted 2025 as the end of the mission, but the spacecraft will likely remain in orbit around the sun for years after. A pair of spacecraft NASA launched in the 1970s to study the sun stopped transmitting data in 1985, but they remain in orbit. Eventually, the sun’s gravity will drag all of them to a fiery demise, taking any evidence of human existence with them. Few of our markers of human existence last forever, Harris says, even microchips in space.