With Voyager on my mind because of its recent anniversary, I had been exploring the Internet landscape for archival footage. But Ioannis Kokkinidis made my search unnecessary with the following essay, which links to abundant resources. The author of several Centauri Dreams posts including Agriculture on Other Worlds, Ioannis holds a Master of Science in Agricultural Engineering from the Department of Natural Resources Management and Agricultural Engineering of the Agricultural University of Athens. He went on to obtain a Mastère Spécialisé Systèmes d’informations localisées pour l’aménagement des territoires (SILAT) from AgroParisTech and AgroMontpellier and a PhD in Geospatial and Environmental Analysis from Virginia Tech. Now a resident of Fresno CA, Ioannis tells us in addition how a lifelong interest in space exploration was fed by the Voyager mission and its continuing data return.
by Ioannis Kokkinidis
Back in the end of August 1989, when I was 9 ½ years old and the whole family was on vacation, the Greek press set aside momentarily its coverage of the continuing shenanigans of Greek politics and the rapidly changing situation to the north of our borders due to the collapse of communism and instead put Voyager 2’s encounter with Neptune in its front pages. My late grandfather was an avid reader of newspapers, which I would also read afterwards. I devoured what I could get my hands on, which alas was not much, it was after all August.
The next year my family moved to California for two years, my father was a visiting professor at UCSF, and I read all the books and magazines about space I could find in the public libraries. I even discovered NASA’s Spacelink, a NASA public education computer service hosted by the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, containing mostly NASA press releases, and I would dial in with our PC XT’s 2400 bps modem. However feeding my space interest was a privilege and my parents made me do a thing I truly dreaded in exchange for dialing the long distance number and indulging myself: play the piano.
After we returned to Greece keeping myself appraised of the latest space developments proved difficult since there is very little popular scientific press in Greece and the mainstream press is not that interested in space. When I got our first internet connection NASA’s Spacelink, now a website, was still up, it still had similar content, though more importantly the releases now included in the bottom instructions on how to get on NASA’s press listserv. I promptly signed up, and I still am on that listerv, becoming informed of the latest space developments, especially in an era before the current proliferation of internet space media made it possible to get the latest space news whenever you wish.
Space in general and NASA in particular have been trailblazers in the formation of the current internet media landscape. Early internet users were for the most part technically savvy people with a strong interest in space. When Mars Pathfinder landed in 1997 it became the first major mass internet event with some 200 million hits on its website, at a time when the internet is believed to have had fewer than 500 million internet users worldwide. Space enthusiasts have always had interest that the mainstream media would not quite satisfy and NASA has indulged those interested, posting pictures, press releases and blogs online, up to the point that today the press conferences are open to all and NASA takes questions from the public in social media.
The ability to consume the latest information about space today runs the whole specter, from basic articles intended for children to conference and peer review papers for professionals, which amateurs can also try to parse for meaning. This was not the case though during the planetary phase of the Voyager program. Per the Voyager books and documentaries I have seen over the years the Jet Propulsion Laboratory held a series of daily press conferences during encounter times that apparently were taped, footage of them is shown in said documentaries. Being on the 40th anniversary of the launch of the most successful planetary missions, I wondered if any of that content was available online. I have discovered that quite a bit was, especially of the 1989 Neptune encounter. When I asked online I was also told, and I did discover, that JPL also produced on a daily basis, and at times more often, 10-15 minute Voyager update videos intended for a general public that were apparently broadcast on PBS, in addition to being shown at Planetariums and science centers. I was able to also find several of these videos are available online too. To my surprise very little of this content is uploaded from official NASA accounts, rather it has been uploaded and collected by enthusiasts.
Image: Some documentaries mixed actual footage with artist’s renderings of the landscapes Voyager saw. This image is from a 1982 NASA presentation.
Understanding the origin of the content
NASA does have quite a bit of Voyager data and information up on its website. It still has the original press kits up, which I actually read them back when I dialed up at Spacelink. The scientific information collected is available for all at the Planetary Data System. Voyager has a website up, with a lot of retrospective information. There are several Von Karman lectures up on YouTube, as are press conferences organized both by NASA but also scientific societies such as the AGU. However these mostly date from the last 15 or so years, especially after YouTube was created. The older stuff has been put up by other people. Having watched the stuff and lived a few years both as a child and as an adult I have a few hunches on who is responsible for doing this public service. One needs first to understand how the education system works in the US.
In Greece primary and secondary education is highly centralized. The Ministry of Education in Athens decides what is to be taught in each grade, each class syllabus and even sends the school books and teachers to the public schools. In private schools the owners select their teachers, but the curriculum and books is the same as in public schools. For that matter the graduating exams at the end of the year there are given by public schools teachers to ensure that private schools are not places where bad students go to buy an education certificate. Students and parents have no control over what gets taught up to high school where some choice is introduced, except of course by their vote in the parliamentary elections, or even who teaches it, except by pressuring their local Members of Parliament. Physics teachers – who in Greece are all physicists graduates of four year universities – have no reason to entice students to take their class, the students are obligated to do so. Greeks schools are also seriously lacking in means, before an EU program about a decade ago only about 150 schools out of the 20,000+ that then existed in Greece had a school library, and though with EU funding and school mergers due to the financial crisis some 10-20% of schools now have a library, that is still a small fraction.
The American educational system is far more decentralized but also has more means. The federal Department of Education can set some guidelines and offer grants, but the educational standards are set at the state level. Major decisions such as hiring and school book choices are made at the school district level, with the school district being made up of representatives directly elected locally, rather than ministry of education centrally appointed functionaries. Now down at the school level students have quite a bit of class choice. As a result science teachers need to make their classes appealing to students in order to have them select it. One way to do so is to teach about cool things in class, and space is generally considered very cool. As a result teachers and schools have maintained such cool content like NASA produced educational material. Also American schools have many means not available to Greek schools, such as school libraries that can include a media section with such material. On top of that some 10% or so of American students are home schooled by their parents, and they often use such material to teach science class. Materials on the internet get copied around incessantly so it hard to track who is the original uploader, but after watching quite a bit of the material shown below I am under the impression that most of the videos have been originally taped by some science teacher or librarian, who eventually uploaded them online.
Voyagers 1 and 2 encountered Jupiter back in 1979. Sony’s Betamax was released in 1974, VHS was released in 1977, there are testimonials on the internet of people watching the Voyager Jupiter updates as children every night on TV but if people recorded the updates at the time, they have not put them up, and neither has NASA. What I have been able to find is the following 24 minute video dating from 1982 that talks about the Voyager 1 and 2 encounters at both Jupiter and Saturn. The first 14 minutes are about Jupiter, the rest is about Saturn.
Image: Io’s volcanoes discussed in this 1982 broadcast.
Voyager 1 encountered Saturn in November 1980 and Voyager 2 in August 1981. We do not have online any of the daily press conferences or full Voyager updates; we do have though two educational documentaries from the time that include extended footage from them. In both cases they are of Voyager 2’s encounter with Saturn. Why Voyager 1’s encounter is not shown is unknown to me, but my guess is that these videos where shown in the run up to the 1986 Voyager 2 encounter with Uranus, and thus the idea was to show what Voyager 2 did in its last encounter. Both videos come from collectors of archival documentary footage on YouTube.
NASA Voyager 2 Spacecraft: Encounter with Saturn – 1981 Educational Documentary
Voyager 2 Saturn Encounter as it Happened 1981 NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
By 1986 video tapes had become more popular. While we do not have footage of any of the press conferences, we have footage of Voyager updates. This video begins in mid update, and then gives several other updates. It seems to have been recorded by somebody in Arizona, since interspaced among the Voyager Updates a small documentary about the USGS Astrogeology center in Flagstaff which is referred to as a local facility. Notice also the scroll for an upcoming Doctor Who episode.
The Voyager Updates do not only deal with the Voyager program, they also give some more general NASA news. One of the updates give a retrospective on how 1977 when the Voyagers were launched Jimmy Carter was just sworn President and the Shah was still ruling Iran. Another updates talks about the upcoming 1986 launches of the Shuttle that will see Galileo, Ulysses and the Hubble Space Telescope get launched. Tragically, Challenger happened two days after Uranus closest approach.
Another interesting contemporary program from the time to watch is the Uranus episode of the long running BBC astronomy program The Sky At Night. The BBC has digitized its archive, though the link that YouTube gave me is not from a BBC account:
The Neptune encounter is far better documented than any of the previous five flybys. Its August timing, which meant that there was very little competing for attention, the experience over the excitement of the previous encounters and the ubiquity of video tapes means that there is quite a bit of material available. The first video is a preview press conference made three months before closest approach, with Ed Stone mostly recapping the previous flybys and explaining to the press new findings since published. In the end he also shows early Neptune pictures taken at the time:
Image: Imagery shown by Ed Stone at the 1989 press conference on Voyager’s encounter with Neptune. Stone used these to explain what would happen in the upcoming encounter.
The following two videos, which appeared as YouTube suggestions after I had seen the rest of the material, purport to contain all the Voyager Updates of the Neptune encounter. They are over twelve hours, so I have only given them a cursory look:
CSPAN is the American equivalent of Parliament TV. Like Parliament TV it carries educational programs when Congress in not in session. Their oldest video tagged “Space” was a hearing on the Challenger disaster. They do not have Voyage briefings at Jupiter, Saturn or Uranus but they did show most of the Neptune press briefings. They also had an audience Q&A with the director of NASA’s planetary division, William Quaide on August 24, a few hours before Neptune closest approach. Interestingly most of the press conferences are not all the way to the end, CSPAN apparently cut coverage when they went over their allotted time.
August 21 1989 Voyager 2 Update
August 22 1989 Voyager 2 Update
August 23 1989 Voyager 2 Update
August 24 1989 Voyager 2 Update
CSPAN August 24 viewer call in with NASA chief scientist William Quaide on Voyager 2 at Neptune
August 25 1989 Voyager 2 Update
On the evening of August 24 to August 25 PBS showed a program called “Neptune all Night” where they showed the hourly Voyager updates live and filled the time in between by having a panel in Philadelphia made of the host, a sci fi writer and a NASA scientist. They also had several guests, such as legendary Hollywood sci fi movie producer and several space scientists such as Jill Tarter. On top of that they did take several questions that were dialed in from all over the US. We do not see any of the panelists or guests, between the updates we have the panelists talking while television is showing Voyager animations such as flyovers of satellites or even Space Shuttle astronauts doing things in space. Two people did tape the program beginning at different points. The first video is from a Florida station and it is of middling quality. It is over five hours:
The second video is from New York’s PBS 13 and contains far more ads to become a subscriber to PBS than the previous video, or the Arizona PBS Uranus video. The tape is of higher quality, but in begins at the equivalent of the 4h 34 minutes mark from the previous video.
The two hour tape ended before the program did, a little after the 3 am Voyager Update. However NASA solar system exploration has put up the last three Voyager Updates of the morning of August 25, for 5 am, 6 am and 7 am in a YouTube video entitled “Voyager 2 at Neptune with Suzy Dodd”. Suzanne Dodd is the current Voyager project manager and she does host the 5 am and 6 am update, though not the 7 am update. At 8 am there was no update, instead Vice President Dan Quayle gave a speech that CSPAN has at its archives in two parts. The Suzy Dodd video is in much better image quality that the rest of the Voyager videos, either at YouTube or CSPAN. Very likely NASA still has the original videos in its archives and at much higher quality than what I found online.
The Neptune encounter was big enough news that several mainstream media organizations made special reports about it. These YouTube videos do not come from the official station accounts. The first is a CNN special report on the Neptune encounter.
The second special was made by TBS and contains reporting from Japan, which did participate in the Neptune and Triton Voyager occultation. It is hosted by Sidney Poitier and is available in 8 parts. The 8th part contains Chuck Berry playing live three songs at the Planetary Society’s farewell party.
Part 1 of 8
Part 2 of 8
Part 3 of 8
Part 4 of 8
Part 5 of 8
Part 6 of 8
Part 7 of 8
Part 8 of 8
Finally Sir Patrick Moore, who most likely was not knighted yet at the time, hosted a Neptune encounter episode for The Sky At Night. This program is far more complete and interesting, in my opinion, than the two other specials.
The Pale Blue Dot Press Conference
On June 6 1990 Ed Stone and Carl Sagan gave a press conference that for the most part summarized what the Voyagers had found during their planetary mission and revealed to the world the family portrait of the Solar System that Voyager 1 took. It was in this press conference that the famed Pale Blue Dot single pixel image of Earth was revealed. For the first 40 or so minutes Ed Stone gives a retrospective of Voyager, repeating for the most part what he had said a year earlier in the three months before Neptune press conference. He also though gives a few scientific updates on Neptune. After 40 minutes he shows the family portrait of the 6 planets, followed by Carl Sagan talking for 10 minutes on the portrait, followed by 30 minutes of Q&A.
The videos in retrospective
Over a quarter of a century since the Pale Blue Dot press conference the more interesting part about these videos is what they reveal about the time they were produced. In the Neptune press conferences the Voyager team fielded questions from West German reporters, the Wall after all fell in October 1989 and Germany was reunified in 1990. Carl Sagan proposes that we have a Joint US Soviet program to send people to Mars, the collapse of the Soviet Union was completely unexpected for everyone. Viewers tend to ask the same questions: Why is Voyager 2 not going to Pluto? Why did Voyager 1 not also visit Uranus and Neptune? Why did you choose Triton over Pluto? Did you find any evidence of alien life, preferably intelligent? When are we sending people to Mars? Did you find evidence of a wormhole, like in Star Trek The Motion Picture? Can you talk about the Golden Record?
The Voyager team does promote the next steps: We will use Hubble Space Telescope images, after its upcoming launch, to follow up on Uranus and Neptune. Galileo to Jupiter is about to launch, and we have proposed Cassini and CRAF as follow up, if Congress approves the missions. Magellan was launched 6 months ago, the long launch gap is over, and it was due to the Challenger disaster. With the power of hindsight we can follow up. Magellan has been called Voyager 3 because it followed its engineering. It was very successful but it is alas the most recent American mission to Venus. Galileo was also a successful mission but suffered from being unable to unfurl its High Gain Antenna. Cassini was approved, and its mission just ended. CRAF though, which intended to flyby an asteroid and orbit a comet on which it would throw a projectile was cancelled. Its science goals though were investigated by Stardust, Deep Impact and Rosetta.
The Voyager program did not end with the Solar System family portrait, for that matter it was not even the last images taken by the imaging subsystem. At the time both Voyagers were used as astronomical observatories, targeting stellar sources in the Ultraviolet. A few months later though they rewrote the spacecraft’s operating system and turned off all the instruments except those measuring fields and particles. During the Shoemaker Levy 9 collision NASA considered reactivating the imaging system to take pictures of the event which was not visible from earth. By that time though the imaging team had dispersed and it was hard to reassemble it. In any case Galileo, en route to Jupiter, took better images. From the Jupiter video already it was repeatedly stated that their last target was the edge of the heliosphere. In the Jupiter video Ed Stones expects that to happen by the end of the century, in the Pale Blue Dot conference he expected that in the first decade of the 21st century.
Throughout the 1990s I would read on any updates on the Voyagers sent by the NASA listserv. Most often they were associated with launch anniversaries or lectures at the fall AGU meeting in San Francisco. Both spacecraft did keep on moving outwards into unexplored part of the heliosphere. Voyager 1 crossed the termination shock at 94 AU in December 2004 and Voyager 2 crossed it at 84 AU in August 2007, entering the heliosheath, where the solar wind is subsonic. Where it ended and the Galactic magnetic field started was a point of contention, especially since the plasma spectrometer on Voyager 1, though not Voyager 2, has failed. In 2012 Voyager 1 did see a dramatic increase in external galactic cosmic rays as opposed solar particles, but we were not certain if the spacecraft had crossed into interstellar space because the magnetic field had not changed direction. Eventually though tape playback of the plasma wave instrument data showed that indeed, in 2012, Voyager 1 had crossed the heliopause and was now in the Galactic magnetic field. Voyager 2 has yet to cross the heliopause though that is expected to happen relatively soon.
Image: Voyager moving beyond the Solar System. Credit: NASA.
The Golden Record
It seems that no Voyager article or documentary is complete with talking about the Golden Record and so will I. In all honesty I always found the pictures taken by the Voyagers more interesting than the record. The artifact is intended to be read by aliens who might run into the probes and contains instructions on how to use it. The instructions assume that the aliens are capable of interpreting the visual signs that we have put up sufficiently to decode the contents of the record. This is a very large assumption considering we have no idea what aliens can do and how. For one thing over a century after their discovery, Linear A tablets have never been deciphered. We believe that like Linear B tablets, which are written in Greek, they are accounting ledgers from the Minoan palaces where they were found, but until we read them we cannot be sure. On top of that the Voyager symbols are written in unique characters. The Phaistos Disc is written in a unique script, closest relative of which is the Arkalohori Axe. Wikipedia lists 26 decipherment claims for the Phaistos Disc which remain fanciful since we cannot apply them to another text to see if they make sense there. Michael Ventris’ decipherment of Linear B became accepted after it was used to read tablets that were published after he and John Chadwick published his discovery. Perhaps it would have been better if we had also printed instructions in English.
But say that alien do read the record, which contains both images and sounds coded differently. On top of that the human speech is in 55 languages. Much as Sagan and Druyan did try to give a snapshot of all human civilization, it is very hard to claim that it is an objective view of mankind. None of the contents, either images or songs, deal with war or any other ugly part of humanity. Trying to understand human civilization from the Golden record is like trying to understand Athens of the Classical Era from Pericles’ Funeral Oration: Both are wonderful documents but they portray their world as they wish it to be, rather than what it is. Still though they tell us quite a bit about ourselves and it was a great idea to include the Golden Record on the spacecraft. I sincerely hope that the project to write a repository of Earth Information on New Horizons does happen.