Netflicks: The Farthest: Voyager in Space
I don’t want to say that young people today are spoiled by modern conveniences – mostly because it makes me sound like a stereotypical curmudgeon. But, it is absolutely true and it was true for me as well in those long-ago days when I could be described as “young”. You, too. And our parents, and theirs and so on, ad infinitum. There is only one way to make young people appreciate the technological heritage they have. The progress from a less complex technology to their time has to be described to them by us involuntary immigrants from the past.
Perhaps only an early-adopter “Space Nerd” from the middle Twentieth Century could explain the early days of the exploration of the Solar System. That would be Your Humble Narrator and I am stepping up on this occasion to review a Netflick Video about that very subject. I followed the Voyager missions from their launch in 1977 to the flyby of Neptune in 1989 – and beyond.
Before there was Voyager, the outer planets were only vaguely known. In 1977 there had been some probes sent to the outer planets – most notably the Mariner and Pioneer probes, which were not insignificant. But, this documentary is an appreciation of Voyager – the “Game Changer” in Solar System exploration – and its very momentous accomplishments. It was the most ambitious and significant exploration of the Solar System of that time and the facts and images gathered are a fundamental part of planetary science to this day.
Because Jupiter is the largest and nearest – at “only” five times the Earth’s distance (One Astronomical Unit (AU)) from the Sun – it was the best known. Even at that, all that was known was some bands of clouds and a “Great Red Spot”. We knew that Jupiter had four large moons. Your average Astronomy Nerd – like Your Humble Narrator – could drag the telescope out of the Garage and show you the Bands and the Spot and the four moons. He would tell you their names – “Io, Europa, Ganymede and Calisto” – and show you four dots of light surrounding a small dimly striped Jupiter where the Great Red Spot might be barely visible.
The more enthusiastic Nerd will have an even bigger telescope and will almost certainly show you Saturn. He will twist your arm (literally, if necessary) to show you Saturn! That is because Saturn is the stunning little toy in the eyepiece that everybody loves to see. They might look at a picture made by a great observatory and appreciate it, but when they see it in a telescope with their own eye*, it is always a stunning epiphany. Saturn’s largest moon Titan and a few of the smaller ones are visible in a large amateur ‘scope About twenty years ago, I showed my mother Saturn and Titan, Rhea and Tethys. It is a great lumbering 12 inch Dobsonian that has no clock drive to track the planet. I had to constantly re-adjust the aim and then tell Mom, “Okay – look quick!” and duck out of her way. She could glimpse Saturn for a scant few seconds until the Earth’s rotation took it out of view. Then I would step back in to find it again, describe what to look for and where and jump back out of the way. She was fairly impressed when I told her that very few people on Earth – one in many millions, perhaps – have personally looked through a telescope and seen these.
*With very few exceptions, telescopes are “monocular”.
The next two targets of Voyager Uranus and Neptune were – even with the best telescopes of the day – were still not much more than small indistinct discs of light.
I told you all that so I could tell you to see “The Farthest: Voyager in Space” on Netflix.
The Story of Voyager
The story begins with the engineers who built the thing. Things, actually – there were two of them. What they modestly describe is really a miracle of concentrated effort and talent, innovation and adaptation. Those engineers and planetary scientists that participated in the effort are interviewed, but not in any simple question-and-answer format. Rather, their responses are woven into the narrative to make a smoothly-flowing saga.
The tale continues. Once the craft were assembled and packaged on their rockets, they were summarily thrown off their native planet – never to return – in dramatic, suspense-filled launches.
The spacecraft encountered, recorded and sent back to Earth discoveries that, on the one hand confirmed long-held ideas of the nature of the Solar System. On the other hand, they relayed stunning new revelations that nobody – in their wildest dreams – had imagined could exist.
Each planetary encounter at Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune -and the decisions and the problems – is chronicled and described by the people involved. There is archival video from the encounter operations where you will recognize younger versions of the interviewees. After Neptune, the continuing mission of the probes is described. And all through the narrative, the sounds and pictures of the famous “golden record” (a Human message to the Universe) are heard and displayed.
Doubt me if you must, but this story is a compelling drama, complete with comedy, tragedy, euphoric glory and devastating failure. A well-written, well-produced timeless chronicle of a stunning achievement for all mankind.
This video has become my new “Saturn” moment. I dragged (figuratively, figuratively!) my Wife to see it with me and she was fascinated by what she had never known. I am working on appointments to watch it again with First and Second Sons.
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