PBS marks 40 years since Voyager launch
By MARCIA DUNN
AP Aerospace Writer
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.
Forty years after blasting off, Earth’s most distant ambassadors – the twin Voyager spacecraft – are carrying sounds and music of our planet ever deeper into the cosmos.
Think of them as messages in bottles meant for anyone – or anything – out there.
This Sunday marks the 40th anniversary of NASA’s launch of Voyager 2, now almost 11 billion miles distant. It departed from Cape Canaveral on Aug. 20, 1977 to explore Jupiter and Saturn.
Voyager 1 followed a few weeks later and is ahead of Voyager 2. It’s humanity’s farthest spacecraft at 13 billion miles away and is the world’s only craft to reach interstellar space, the vast mostly emptiness between star systems. Voyager 2 is expected to cross that boundary during the next few years.
Each carries a 12-inch, gold-plated copper phonograph record (there were no CDs or MP3s back then) containing messages from Earth: Beethoven’s Fifth, chirping crickets, a baby’s cry, a kiss, wind and rain, a thunderous moon rocket launch, African pygmy songs, Solomon Island panpipes, a Peruvian wedding song and greetings in dozens of languages. There are also more than 100 electronic images on each record showing 20th-century life, traffic jams and all.
NASA is marking the anniversary of its back-to-back Voyager launches with tweets, reminiscences and still captivating photos of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune taken by the Voyagers from 1979 through the 1980s.
Public television is also paying tribute with a documentary, “The Farthest - Voyager in Space,” airing Wednesday on PBS at 9 p.m. The two-hour documentary describes the tense and dramatic behind-the-scenes effort that culminated in the wildly successful missions to our solar system’s outer planets and beyond. There’s original TV footage throughout, including a lookback at the late astronomer Carl Sagan of the 1980 PBS series “Cosmos.”
It was Sagan who, in large part, got a record aboard each Voyager. NASA was reluctant and did not want the records eclipsing the scientific goals. Sagan finally prevailed, but he and his fellow record promoters had less than two months to rustle everything up.
The music production fell to science writer Timothy Ferris, a friend of Sagan living then in New York. For the musical selections, Ferris and Sagan recruited friends along with a few professional musicians. How to choose from an infinite number of melodies representing all of Earth?
Beethoven, Bach and Mozart were easy picks. Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven represented jazz, Blind Willie Johnson gospel blues.
For the rock ‘n’ roll single, the group selected Chuck Berry’s 1958 hit “Johnny B. Goode.”