The 40th anniversary of Voyager ‘The Farthest’
IF YOU WATCH
What: “The Farthest: Voyager in Space”
When: 9 p.m.
By GEORGE DICKIE
For NASA, the United States and the world, the Voyager program is the gift that keeps on giving.
Launched in 1977, the twin unmanned missions to our solar system’s outer planets yielded libraries’-worth of photos and data on Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune and beyond, and did it using the computing power equivalent to that of an average car’s key fob. Along the way on the spacecrafts’ “grand tour,” the mission scientists, engineers and team members were able to resolve critical problems as they cropped up, using good, oldfashioned outside-the-box thinking to take advantage of a once-in-176-year planetary alignment.
The story is told in “The Farthest: Voyager in Space,” airing Wednesday on PBS. Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the mission’s launch, the two-hour documentary takes viewers from the mission’s genesis in 1972, through the launches in ’77, the near-failures and corrections, and the elation of the planetary fly-bys, using photos, archival footage and interviews with key team members. It also recalls the famous “golden record,” a gold-plated copper analog LP disc containing music and greetings in various languages from Earth – just in case anyone out there was listening.
“Space is a hard business, and you really do the best you can when you develop a new system,” says Ed Stone, a NASA scientist who appears in the film. “This was the first fully automated spacecraft – that is, it flies itself – and if there’s a problem, it tries to correct the problem. And all of that was done in five years, which I think is a really remarkable achievement when you look back on it, because both of them worked and they’re still working.”
Indeed, both Voyager 1 and 2 are still yielding data long after they exited the solar system, and that is because they were overbuilt. When President Richard Nixon and Congress originally approved the missions in 1972, it was with the understanding that it was only to Jupiter and Saturn. But with a few covert tweaks, the team found they could extend the probes’ lives indefinitely.
“The main challenge we had was we couldn’t do anything that would specifically increase the cost or delay the schedule ...,” Stone explains. “For instance, the sun sensor as originally was designed – we were flying out to Saturn, where the sun is one percent as bright (as on Earth) but would not work at Neptune, where it’s a tenth of a percent as bright. So we did a minor ,but important, tweak. It wasn’t a major thing to do, but we just fixed it so it had more sensitivity range so that we would not go solar blind and pass by Saturn. And since it didn’t really cost any significant amount, it was not an issue. So it was things like that we made sure we didn’t build ourselves in a corner.”
PBS’ ‘The Farthest’ looks at the landmark innovation that was the Voyager missions.