In August 1977, NASA launched the Voyager mission, sending two spacecraft to take pictures of the outer planets. An incredibly successful mission, the Voyager team collected incredible images of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and their moons, and even now, 40 years later, the spacecraft continue to send down new information from interstellar space. In documentary The Farthest, writer and director Emer Reynolds captures the courage and poignancy of this endeavor, of sending a piece of humanity into the unknown, where it will outlive us all. (AEL: 4/5)
Review by FF2 Intern Amelie E. Lasker
From the beginning, the scientists behind the Voyager mission designed the spacecraft to be limitless in its achievements. Jimmy Carter’s administration set the mission to fly only by Jupiter and Saturn, but the NASA engineers at CalTech made sure nothing in their design would prevent the spacecraft from moving beyond those planets. And they did! Voyager One and Two took pictures of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and their moons, making rich discoveries, like active volcanism on Io, and the strange contortions of Uranus’ askew magnetic field.
This mission is discovery for the sake of itself, gathering knowledge that doesn’t necessarily need to lead to new technology. As theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss puts it, they’re asking how without pausing at why. “It’s a very child-like thing to ask a million questions,” says Candy Hansen-Koharcheck, one of the mission’s imaging scientists, “and some of us never grow up!”
The scientists find it funny that it’s not the mission’s scientific discoveries¾the physical and chemical details of the distant planets¾that captures the public imagination. Instead, people always want to know about the messages the spacecraft contain: The Golden Record, a collection of audio recordings selected to depict the experience of living on Earth for any extraterrestrial life that might be listening. The choices behind this piece of the mission are fascinating, and it’s no wonder that they are universally inspiring.
The team chose two and a half hours of sounds from our planet, including a range from animal calls to Chuck Berry. The Record then includes half an hour of messages in different languages. The possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial life is at once hopeful and worrying for those recording the messages. The Chinese Mandarin representative, for example, says poignantly, “Hope everyone’s well. We are thinking about you all. Please come here to visit us when you have time.” The Voyager scientists speculate: if this message did reach aliens somewhere, would they be able to interpret it? And would their response be friendly?
To me, these kinds of questions are what the documentary explores best. The concepts underlying this mission are profound: one scientist points out that regardless of whether the mission might reach life on other planets someday, a piece of humanity is speeding out beyond our solar system, and it will outlive not only us, but probably our sun, too. In a press conference, Carl Sagan shows Voyager One’s image of our solar system. At first glance, Earth seems to be missing from the image, but when Sagan zooms in, it is visible as a tiny blue dot. Sagan explains that the image reminds us that we are unfathomably small and alone, and that we have to value what we have. The Farthest deftly highlights the beauty of the images of the outer planets, the courage of the scientists behind those images, and the poignancy of what they teach us.
© Amelie E. Lasker (8/16/17) FF2 Media
Top Photo: Saturn as seen from Voyager One.
Middle Photo: Carl Sagan shows Voyager One’s picture of the Earth, a speck of dust in a sunbeam.
Bottom Photo: One of the Voyager spacecraft in front of Saturn.
Photo Credits: Abramorama
Many of the scientists who worked on, and continue to work on, the Voyager mission are female. It’s women, too, who first saw many of the mission’s exciting discoveries.