Humans have launched some major missions of exploration into the universe. Yuri Gagarin reached orbit. The Apollo astronauts walked across the Moon. Them Viking find out about Mars. But never before has a plane visited four worlds at once, a journey as grand as those two Voyager Explorations were made in the 1970s and 1980s including Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. And the story behind these two planes, along with the people who made them fly, is absolutely compelling.
Fortunately, on their 40th anniversary, PBS has produced a 90-minute documentary worthy of these missions. Featuring interviews with many leading scientists and art experts, The most distant tells the story of how Voyager 1 and 2 were conceived, where they flew, and what they discovered while explaining all the drama in between. The account started on August 23.
Before the Voyagers were launched, people had been observing mysterious blobs in the outer Solar System for hundreds of years. Pioneers 10 and 11 provide the best views of Jupiter and Saturn, but little is known about their planets or moons. Next to nothing we know of Uranus and Neptune. The Voyagers discovered complex planetary systems and amazing moons, like the volcano-covered Io, icy Europa, and Titan with its methane oceans.
There are many tidbits here that most of us have forgotten or never knew. Initially, President Richard Nixon only authorized the spacecraft to visit two worlds—but scientists secretly opened the door to visit all four. Voyager 2, the first of the two spacecraft to launch, was nearly lost during a turbulent takeoff, when rocket vibrations convinced the spacecraft’s sensors that it had separated. And after the committee leaders decided to have a phonograph of human voices, including music, Carl Sagan only had a few weeks to make choices. The frantic frenetic movement on Earth set off years of exploration in deep space.
The archive footage is amazing too. After the Voyagers went beyond Neptune into interstellar space, scientists held a big celebration at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Chuck Berry played, since his rock-n-roll hit a gold record on Voyager. Carl Sagan danced. What a time to be alive.
The Voyager program was the Apollo program of robotic spacecraft—one of America’s space exploration missions. It’s a good thing that PBS produced this documentary on celebrating 40 years rather than 50 years of airplane launches. As we saw with the Apollo program, many luminaries who participated in lunar missions, most notably Neil Armstrong, died before reaching the golden age. Here, most of the original scientists involved in Voyager—except Carl Sagan, who died in 1996 at the age of 62—are alive and well. And golly, do they have amazing stories to tell.
Image courtesy of Tangled Bank Studios