—by Dr. Laura Wilhelm, LauraWil Intercultural
The two Voyager spacecraft beamed back revelatory pictures of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune with their moons. “This may be, in the long run, the only evidence that we ever existed,” comments one of the many NASA scientists who worked on the project about the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft that might outlive the human race. They were originally supposed to travel only to Jupiter and Saturn, but a rare planetary alignment that takes place once every 176 years allowed NASA to extend their mission to Uranus and Neptune and beyond.
Part of THE FARTHEST focuses on the “Golden Record,” the LP-like disc (made of metal rather than vinyl) included on both Voyagers. The design was spearheaded by famed Cornell astrophysicist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Carl Sagan, who had achieved celebrity status on PBS’ popular NOVA television series. The “Golden Record” featured greetings to aliens recorded in 55 world languages.
The time-sensitive task of gathering said greetings fell to Sagan’s writer/artist wife, Linda. As part of the project the Sagans’ seven-year-old son Nick uttered the line “Hello from the children of Planet Earth” for his mother, drank his apple juice, and went back to his books! Nick Sagan has played a key role in promoting THE FARTHEST and his family legacy.
Many elements of the “Golden Record” such as spatial perspective and gestures of greeting by the naked human man and woman pictured upon it in line drawings have been deconstructed by academics in the meantime as being potentially incomprehensible to alien beings. NASA nixed a photo of a naked pregnant woman as either being too sexy or not sexy enough to send into space, an obvious (if amusing) example of this sort of logical absurdity vis–à–vis aliens more likely to resemble microbes than men!
Still, the greetings on the “Golden Record” often charm us with their heartfelt good will. Cf. the statement made by the Mandarin Chinese speaker: “Hope everyone’s well. We are thinking about you all. Please come here to visit when you have time.”
The “high-tech” Voyager spacecraft are partially wrapped in aluminum foil from the supermarket and tricked out with vintage 70s-style eight-track tape decks. The computers in today’s cell phones have 240,000 times more memory–but Voyager 1 and 2 still reign supreme in space!
THE FARTHEST: VOYAGER IN SPACE was produced by John Murray and Clare Strong at HHMI’s Tangle Bank Studios Crossing the Line Productions and distributed by Abramorama. The genesis of the Voyager mission at the nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena should help to create an eager audience in Los Angeles. PBS will show the film again on September 13th.
On Monday, July 31st, 2017 a particularly distinguished panel of guests spoke about THE FARTHEST and its accompanying short piece, SECOND GENESIS, at the PBS portion of the TCA Press Tour held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Present were Bill Gardner, Vice President of Programming and Development for PBS for history, science, and nature; Timothy Ferris, producer of the “Golden Record”; Carolyn Porco, Voyager imaging scientist and Cassini Imaging Team leader; John Rubin, HHMI Tangled Bank Studios Executive Producer; and Ed Stone, Voyager’s chief scientist for 45 years who has emerged as a living legend at JPL.
Timothy Ferris revealed that a former student of his named David Peskovitz took upon himself the monumental task of creating a Kickstarter campaign to produce a version of “The Golden Record” for us Earthlings. Ferris was happy to say that the record would finally be released, remastered from the original for the first time, in August right in time for the anniversary of the Voyager launch!
“Science is about learning what nature is like and understanding it,” Stone reminded the audience. “And day after day. . .we just had a flood of new information. It was really a joy to be able to be part of that process for six different encounters. So it’s really been a great journey and, as a scientist, just a wonderful opportunity.”
Carolyn Porco agreed that humans just want to know! “It’s innate in us. It must convey some evolutionary advantage to us to be that way, but we’re all that way. And I think that interest in space exploration, be it the reality of it and actually going out exploring or be it the world of fantasy as Hollywood puts it on the screen, I think it’s all mixed together. It’s all part of the same human element.”
Porco went on to speculate that the whole “space shtick” had started when President John F. Kennedy told us we were going to the moon. “And at that point we all learned that we were going to do something that was emblematic of the impossible,” she said.
The subversiveness of the Voyager missions, which President Richard Nixon originally approved to explore only Jupiter and Saturn, also appeals to the popular imagination. Political administrations may come and go, but progress marches ever onward–sometimes right above our heads!
One questioner alluded to the lack of funding for the US space program such that American astronauts are forced to hitch rides to the International Space Station on Russian spacecraft. Carolyn Porco confirmed that the human flight aspect of our space program was in stasis, but that the robotic aspect remained quite robust, as attested by her own work on the Cassini mission at Saturn where extraterrestrial life may at last be discovered.
THE FARTHEST in fact contrasted the risks of the human flight and robotic aspects of the US space program by juxtaposing chilling footage of the 1986 Challenger disaster during the Reagan Administration when seven lives were lost with transcendently triumphant photos from the unmanned Voyager units. As we reflect upon the untold sacrifices made in the quest “to explore the universe and discover its truths” (in Reagan’s phrasing), let us not forget to dare mighty things and keep making great leaps forward into the future.
Films like THE FARTHEST return us to the “whys” and “what ifs” of childhood and whet our appetites for the next big adventure! They are truly out of this world.