Review by C.J. Bunce
Once every 176 years a window opens whereby humans can send spacecraft in a trajectory that would include Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Scientists knew of this pathway for centuries and the time for this window was approaching as 1970 arrived. To act, with achievements in rocketry, aeronautical science, and experience in space travel, decisions needed to made quickly. When President Richard Nixon was told this–and that the last President who could have done this, Thomas Jefferson, missed his opportunity–Nixon authorized the creation of two spacecraft to make the journey at a cost of about $1 billion. The result is considered by many scientists to be the greatest space mission ever devised by humans. The information recorded on the grooves of the accompanying golden records will survive intact for at least a billion years, making ours the first generation to create something that will not only outlive us, but will outlive our star.
One of the highlights of the year from NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and PBS that we previewed in January here at borg.com has arrived. An excellent, and surprisingly poignant and even epic journey of exploration as exciting as any voyage you’ve ever read about or seen awaits you in PBS’s new documentary The Farthest–Voyager in Space. You will be hard-pressed (and must be made of some substance not found on this planet) to watch this film and not find yourself joining the Voyager project members in shedding a tear or two as you follow along in the amazement and surprising emotion of the Voyager missions, their euphoric highs and nearly devastating lows. Should it surprise us that scientists and retired scientists saw their mission as so personal and yet so global in scope, to get so emotional when discussing the Voyager probes 40 years since they left the Earth? Individual experts in all aspects of science, from NASA engineers to imaging specialists, describe their creation in terms like they would a child sent off into the unknown, never to return, but that would keep sending postcards and messages home for decades to come.
The film’s journey chronicles benchmarks of the Voyager spacecrafts as the individual scientists who were there from conception of the idea in 1972 to the 1977 launch of the first ship, Voyager II–which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year–to its arrival at Jupiter and Saturn, to Voyager I’s arrival at Uranus and Neptune, to its emergence beyond the magnetic bubble that defines our solar system and entering interstellar space and beyond. The probes were the first manmade objects to do many things, among them the first to observe volcanic activity outside of Earth, to discover moons which may contain life, and to leave our solar system. The Voyager space records that humans have been so fascinated with since 1974 are explored in the film, too, as well as the afterparty attended by Chuck Berry, whose “Johnny B. Goode” continues its voyage into the unknown every day. Standing in for Carl Sagan–who directed the creation of the two physical Voyager records (plus a few extras to keep for Earthlings) and their contents in less than six weeks–is his son Nick Sagan, whose greeting to possible alien life as a young boy was included on the records.
What makes this documentary superior to so many other videos on science? These particular scientists that were interviewed are also clearly good teachers and communicators, the production was well-edited so that the story could be explained in plain words even ten-year-olds can understand, the film encourages further discussion and investigation in many aspects of astronomy, math, physics, chemistry, and engineering, among other things, and the message of the Voyager program is one of optimism. In one segment, similar to the ingenuity we saw in the Apollo 13 mission to seemingly have scientists on the ground use duct tape and cardboard to save the spacecraft’s crew, scientists embarked on a grocery store mission for aluminum foil to wrap cables one by one to address a last-minute concern that Voyager II would be damaged by radiation fields near Jupiter.
The Farthest is followed on PBS stations by the digital short film Second Genesis, which follows planetary scientist Carolyn Porco, one of The Farthest’s contributors, as she explores what it takes to look for life beyond Earth, and what conditions are required for life to exist. Porco posits that Saturn’s moon Enceladus—with its plumes of water vapor spewing into space, confirmed organic materials, and evidence of hydrothermal vents at the bottom of its liquid ocean—is the most promising place to look. Could Enceladus be the key to proving once and for all that life is not unique to Earth? Porco’s research takes Voyager’s findings and journey into a new branch of science and exploration.
A brief preview:
This is a NASA video just released on Voyager:
Each Voyager space probe is now more than 10 billion miles away from Earth.
As a postscript to an article we discussed last year here at borg.com, the Voyager space record that was being re-released as part of a Kickstarter campaign is now taking pre-orders for anyone to get a copy of the release on vinyl or CD. Check out the record company’s website here for more information.
You can watch The Farthest–Voyager in Space now here at the PBS website, or check local listings for re-broadcast times.