As we continue to track the Voyagers into interstellar space, the spacecraft have become the subject of a new documentary. Associate editor Larry Klaes, a long-time Centauri Dreams essayist and commentator, here looks at The Farthest: Voyager in Space, a compelling film released last year. Larry’s deep knowledge of the Voyager mission helps him spot the occasional omission (why no mention of serious problems on the way to Jupiter, or of the historic Voyager 1 photo of Earth and Moon early in the mission?), but he’s taken with the interviews, the special effects and, more often than not, with the spirit of the production. That spirit sometimes downplays science but does give the Golden Record plenty of air-time, including much that was new to me, such as the origin of the “Send more Chuck Berry!” quip, John Lennon’s role, NASA’s ambivalence, and an odd and insulting choice of venue for a key news conference. Read on for what you’ll see and what you won’t in this film about our longest and most distant mission to date.
By Lawrence Klaes
Can one properly represent humanity to the rest of the Milky Way galaxy with just two identical space vessels no bigger than a small school bus and two identical copies of a golden metallic long-playing (LP) record attached to the hulls of said vehicles which contain in their grooves sample images, sounds, languages, and music of their makers and their world?
Our species can only hope so at this point, since the objects in question left Earth over four decades ago and are now tens of billions of miles into deep space heading in different directions through the galaxy. Although primarily planned and built to explore the planets, moons, and rings of the outer Sol system, these vessels were ultimately given another purpose and destiny preordained by their encounters with the places they were sent to. Ironically, this destiny relies on the existence of beings for whom there is as yet no evidence that they are actually out there among the stars.
These records, their carrying vessels and their missions are the focus of the documentary The Farthest: Voyager in Space, which premiered in 2017. Written and directed by Emer Reynolds and produced by John Murray and Clare Stronge for the Irish documentary company Crossing the Line Productions, The Farthest does a masterful artistic job of introducing to generations who were either too young or not yet born to two real space probes on actual missions to alien worlds on a scale never attempted before.
Pioneers and Voyagers, Plaques and Records
The “stars” of The Farthest were originally designated Mariner 11 and 12 by their creators at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). They were the descendants of a successful lineage of American deep space probes which had in their ancestry the first visitors to the planets Venus and Mars. However, the space agency wanted to “spice” up their public image and recast these newest members of the Mariner clan as Voyager 1 and 2.
The renaming was appropriate, for these sailors of the interplanetary seas were also descended from what remained of the original Grand Tour plan of the 1960s to examine the outer worlds of the Sol system from Jupiter to Pluto with four nuclear-powered space probes and return unprecedented magnitudes of data about them on a selection of wavelengths.
Launched from Earth in the late summer of 1977, the interplanetary trajectories of the Voyagers past the gas giant worlds would eventually fling them fast enough to permanently escape the gravitational influence of our yellow dwarf star. This would make them only the third and fourth space vessels made by humanity to head towards the interstellar realm after Pioneer 10 and 11, the members of another line of automated American space probes with an impressive exploration pedigree which had celestially paved the way for their more sophisticated brethren just a few years earlier.
The nearly twin Pioneer probes were not only the first spacecraft to visit the planets Jupiter and Saturn between 1973 and 1979, they were also the first to be the recipients of gravitational “slingshots” by those gas giants that sent them towards interstellar space. In case either or both of the probes might one day be found drifting between the stars by sophisticated alien intelligences, each Pioneer carries a small golden plaque attached to their antenna struts. A scientific greeting, the plaques are engraved with basic information on who made these vehicles, what their missions would be, where the probes came from, and when they were lofted into the void.
Recognizing the Voyager missions as two more rare opportunities to preserve and present selected aspects of their species to the wider Milky Way, a small group of professionals from a variety of fields (several of whom were involved with designing the Pioneer Plaques), thinking far ahead, planned and put together a more intricate and detailed “gift package” in the form of a gold-plated copper record. Protected by a thin aluminum cover inscribed with pictogram instructions on how to play it, the Golden Record (as the Voyager Interstellar Record is most often called) contains as much information as could be reasonably etched into the spiraling groove of the 12-inch disc, with over half of the data about the human race being selections of global music.
It has been conservatively estimated that the side of the Golden Records facing outwards (they are bolted to the exteriors of the probes’ main bus) will survive in playable form for at least one billion years in deep space, barring any remote chance of a large cosmic collision or other accident. Hopefully this will be more than enough time for someone to come upon the vessels and their priceless cargo before the galactic environment wears them away to join the rest of its voluminous interstellar dust.
Although the Golden Record was certainly not the main reason for the Voyager missions, they have long since become the prime focus in the public’s mind. After all, the probes’ primary missions ended when Voyager 2 flew through the Neptune system in 1989 and even though they are still functioning and collecting in situ science data on the interstellar medium, that current mission will end around 2030 when their nuclear power supplies can no longer generate enough energy to run any of the instruments. This will leave the Voyagers with its final, singular purpose: To carry that shining circular gift throughout the stars for eons, with the slim but still hopeful possibility that some day another mind in the galaxy will discover it and learn about us.
The Farthest as a Whole
The Farthest is a beautifully crafted documentary on a subject that has been waiting a long time for a proper and respectful treatment. Emer Reynolds love for the subject is evident, inspired by childhood visits to her uncle’s farm in Ireland with its night skies free of light pollution, as she described in this interview:
“A fascination with space began on those farm stays. ‘Mohober House’s sky at night was the opposite to the skies over our home in Dublin. We would drive to Tipperary in our old Hillman Hunter, my dad doing maths puzzles with us all the way, just for fun.
“As night fell, the dark, dark skies overhead would reveal the sparkling cosmos. I was dazzled and in awe of the visible smudge of our Milky Way Galaxy overhead.
“I would spend hours lying on the grass, staring into the blackness. I was dreaming of tumbling through space, hurtling along at 67,000 mph, clutching onto a fragile blue planet.
“Aliens, Horse Head Nebula, star nurseries and time-travel, and exotic distant worlds filled my head as a child. They still do in fact.
“The film is a love story to that awe and wonder I first felt as a child in Tipperary,” Reynolds said.
With its under two-hour running time, The Farthest manages to perform quite the balancing act describing the forty-plus year history of how the Voyagers came to be and what they accomplished. This presentation included interviewing nearly two dozen people, most of whom were either directly involved with the development of the space probes and their science missions, or the creation of the Golden Record – and sometimes both. The documentary goes back and forth between the birth, development, launch, and missions of the Voyagers to the four gas and ice giant worlds dominating the outer realm of our celestial neighborhood – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune – and the parallel development and contents of the Golden Record.
Had Reynolds et al the time and resources, it would have been fascinating to turn The Farthest into a multi-part documentary. For although the production succeeds in giving an excellent introduction to the overall mission, accomplishments, and the people of the Voyager expeditions, each aspect of these deep space probes could have been given their own documentary for a truly in-depth treatment.
As someone who has followed the Voyager probes since their conception in the Grand Tour plan, I was made keenly aware of various important moments in the Voyager history that were left out, no doubt due in large part to time. Each world system visited and revealed by our intrepid robot explorers could easily be given their own dedicated time.
Here is just one example: While the documentary did talk a bit about the true nature of Jupiter’s Galilean moon Europa, first made known to humanity by the Voyagers in 1979, it was literally just skimming the surface on this alien world. Europa has a global ocean of liquid water at twice the volume of all the water found on Earth that is perhaps sixty miles deep and hidden beneath a crust of ice covered in many long lines and cracks and very few impact craters in comparison. It has been speculated that the ruddy material which permeates these fractures in the ice are organic compounds churned up from the ocean below – and perhaps even include the remains of native aquatic life forms.
In regards to the technical aspects of the Voyager probes themselves, when considering how much The Farthest focused on all the technical troubles the twin Voyagers had when they were launched into the Final Frontier for extra dramatic effect, I was disappointed to witness no mention of the serious problems that Voyager 2 had with its radio receivers well before its one and only encounter with Jupiter.
In April of 1978, the space probe’s main radio receiver permanently failed after an unexpected power surge blew its fuses. Thankfully Voyager’s designers had installed a backup receiver which did activate automatically, although it took an entire week for this to happen as mission controllers had to wait for Voyager 2’s onboard computers to recognize that the probe was not receiving any commands from Earth.
Then the team discovered that the backup receiver was having issues of its own, namely that it could not detect changes in radio signal frequencies due to the failure of its “tracking loop capacitor.” As a result, the probe’s human handlers had to determine which frequency that Voyager 2 was listening to and then send commands on the available channel. This situation remained through every one of its planetary encounters right to the present day.
Had both radio systems failed, Voyager 2’s mission would have been effectively over before it had really begun. Both probes were sophisticated enough to conduct a basic science mission on their own in the event they lost contact with their human controllers, but without a way to relay their precious data back to Earth, no one would ever know what the Voyager had found out there. In the particulars of Voyager 2’s case, not only would we have lost its much closer examination of Europa but also humanity’s first encounters with Uranus and Neptune.
Seeing as we have yet to follow up with any new probe missions after Voyager 2’s singular flybys of those ice giants after a time span of over three decades, the loss to planetary science had the robot explorer gone permanently silent while sailing through the Main Planetoid Belt cannot be overestimated.
I was also surprised that the documentary made no mention, let alone failed to even show, one of the first historic actions one of the probes had done during its mission: Just thirteen days after being launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, Voyager 1 aimed its cameras at the world it had just left and returned the first image of Earth and its moon captured in a single frame from 7.25 million miles away.
This is probably among the more famous images taken by the two deep space probes – and that is saying something. I wish the documenters had shown Earth and the Moon as Voyager 1 saw it while the robotic explorer was just underway on its long journey and then juxtaposed it with the later segment on the probe’s last image taken in February of 1990, the very famous photograph of our planet as a Pale Blue Dot as seen from the edge of our Sol system. This would have made for a nice counterpoint balance, bringing home just how far the Voyagers had gone not only in terms of distance but also in how much they had revealed to and enlightened the species that built them for this adventure, living back there on that blue globe now so far away in space and time.
The special effects in The Farthest were very nicely done. One standout in particular involved Voyager 1 sailing in front of Jupiter with its Great Red Spot while they played the eerie, screeching radio signals coming from the giant planet. These literally otherworldly sounds turned out to be immense electrical storms far bigger and more powerful than anything generated on Earth.
I also liked how they introduced the segment for each new planet as the Voyagers approached them for the first time. They took numerous still frames taken by the probes of the world as they were being approached and combined them into a video with subdued music playing in the background. This gave the viewer the feeling of how the mission team felt as the alien globes were slowly being revealed in increasing detail by the probes’ electronic eyes.
Another highlight of The Farthest were the interviews of the people who played both direct and indirect roles with the Voyagers and their Golden Records. Among the many standouts were Frank Locatell, Voyager’s Project Engineer, Mechanical Systems, whose expressive and amusing description of how the team had to surreptitiously wrap all of the probes’ external cables with aluminum foil bought from a local grocery store – so that Jupiter’s immense and powerful magnetic field wouldn’t fry the machines into electronic oblivion — is worth watching the documentary for that alone.
Nick Sagan, the third son of Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer and science popularizer who did much to make the Pioneer Plaques and Voyager Records a reality, shared his experiences and thoughts as a young boy who was asked to participate in the creation of the Golden Record. Among the sound sections on the LP were samples of 55 human languages greeting whoever would find the Voyagers and their gifts some day. Nick represented all those people who speak English with the phrase: “Hello from the children of planet Earth.”
The documentary made a point of mentioning throughout that the Voyager probes were over forty years old, meaning their technology was from the 1970s: The year 1972 to be precise, as the spacecraft designs had to be “frozen” five years before the probes’ launch dates. Perhaps to younger ears this seems positively ancient, leaving them to wonder how anyone back then, even NASA, could send automated spaceships billions of miles across hostile space to explore alien planets and moons in working order for more than a decade.
Rich Terrile, Voyager Imaging Science, visually brought home just how wide the technological gulf had become over the past four decades by producing a modern key fob and saying that the processing power of the computer chip inside this little device was comparable to the most advanced – and much larger – artificial brains of that earlier era.
As a nice counterpoint, this demonstration was immediately followed by a clip with Voyager Project Manager John Casani, who asked: “What’s wrong with ‘70s technology? I mean, you look at me, I’m 30s technology!” Casani added that he makes no apologies for the “limitations that we were working with at the time. We milked the technology for what we could get from it.” Seeing how the Voyagers have lasted well beyond their initial planned encounters with Jupiter and Saturn from 1979 to 1981, with every intention of recording and returning scientific data on the interstellar medium for perhaps two decades more, no apologies are necessary, indeed.
Apparently all of the interviews with the Voyager team members and some of the others shown in The Farthest averaged about three hours each. This is yet another reason to have an entire documentary series on the Voyager probes so that those who want to can hear everything these space pioneers accomplished beyond their tantalizing clips. I also hope that the documentary producers have either already archived or will archive these valuable interviews for the benefit of our historical record on the early Space Age.
Too “Space-y Science-y”?
One surprise taken from various interviews and news items regarding The Farthest was the documentary makers’ desire not to get too “space-y science-y” with their presentation. Here is one example of this attitude straight from Emer Reynolds herself:
“We were trying to find people that would be prepared to talk to us, but more than that – because we wanted to make a film that was very human and tapped into the human side as opposed to dry science,” says Reynolds.
The film, she assures, is not aimed at the “space-y science-y types” – it’s for everyone. It is, at its heart, a human story. “It goes into the heart of what makes us human, the great mysteries that define our existence,” says Reynolds.
Not only are “space-y” and “science-y” not actual words in the English language (plus referring to those who do like such topics as “types” is a bit insensitive and ostracizing), but this flies in the face of the fact that the Voyager missions were all about science, not to mention made possible because of science!
I understand to a degree what the documentary makers were trying to say here, as science can be and has been presented by its practitioners in a fashion that is often less than palatable to those who are not indoctrinated in the various fields of knowledge, even including something as naturally exciting and wondrous as outer space. However, such a statement – and a grammatically poor one at that – does not speak well either about the makers’ perceptions of their audience or the knowledge and interest levels of the audiences themselves.
I also understand that they wanted to be inclusive with their viewing audience, but to throw science under the bus like that is not only an offense to the general public but especially those who would be drawn to the subject matter of their documentary because it is both about a historic time in space science and communicating with intelligent extraterrestrial life.
With the exception of the fact that I wish they would turn this documentary into a series to expand upon the various aspects of the Voyager missions, I thought they did a fairly good job of presenting the space science of each world they visited. They even discussed the wild magnetic field of Uranus, a topic that could easily have become bogged down by someone having to explain its physics to a lay audience.
On the other hand, this explains why the documentary’s discussions on ETI were fairly basic, sticking to standard viewpoints and ideas on alien life and their possible behaviors. I cannot say I was entirely pleased with their use of children’s drawings of aliens as background effects. They tended to focus on portraying extraterrestrials as literal bug-eyed monsters and the big-headed, thin-bodied types from innumerable UFO reports. These depictions only serve to infantilize the subject and keep it from being taken seriously by the scientific community and others. Such stereotypical and immature presentations of aliens certainly do not help the case for the existence of the Golden Records.
It is just sad that our culture is so “afraid” of science or anything that might go above their heads, as if they would get lost and confused rather than learn something new to expand and enlighten their worldviews. After all, isn’t that what space exploration is all about? And the Voyagers did that big time. Plus, if we want future generations of those “space-y science-y types” to forge new missions to other worlds in our vast Cosmos, then documenters and educators need to appeal to them to spark their interest and destinies as much as the casually curious viewer, if not more so.
On the Record
The makers of The Farthest worried that too much impersonal science in their documentary would turn away potential viewers, whom they perceived as uncomfortable with the subject matter. In an ironic contrast, a number of the makers and practitioners of the Voyager probes were even more concerned that one particular item being added to the twin vessels were of no scientific value at all.
Jared Lipworth, a consulting producer with HHMI Tangled Bank Studios, which collaborated with the production company Crossing The Line to present The Farthest, stated the situation succinctly in this interview:
“The scientists at the time, a lot of them, did not want to have anything to do with it,” Lipworth said. “They did not want it on [the spacecraft] and didn’t like it was getting all the attention. But that says a lot about humanity. It was as much for us as it was for any alien that might find it.”
The Farthest provides a good deal of evidence for these reaction to the Golden Records from the scientific and engineering quarters of the Voyager team. Several members confirm this during their interviews, including Frank Drake, the famed SETI pioneer who was also heavily involved with designing both the Pioneer Plaques and the Voyager Records. NASA also showed their ambivalence towards the records: In their early press releases depicting photographs and diagrams of the probes, the Voyagers were often shown with their sides which did not include the familiar disc, as if by hiding the record the space agency could avoid having to discuss it. Being perhaps the most relatable and intriguing aspect of the robotic vessels to the general public, this ploy naturally failed.
The documentary also revealed that the official NASA press conference for the Golden Record was shunted off to a nearby second-rate motel. Held just days after Voyager 2 was lofted skyward, record team member Timothy Ferris relayed how he and his fellow collaborators had to compete with the music and general noise from a Polish wedding going on nearby, separated only by a large partition. The scenario is initially amusing until you grasp just how insulting the whole production was to the record team and the concept. However, as with NASA’s attempts to hide the pesky disc within their media documentation, their efforts at obnubilation were ultimately futile.
The space agency did make one last attempt to physically remove the Golden Record from Voyager. Ferris, who was in charge of procuring the music selections, wanted to include a short engraved dedication message in the blank spaces of the record between its takeout grooves: “To the makers of music – all worlds, all times.” Ferris was inspired to do this by John Lennon of The Beatles, who in turn recommended his studio engineer, Jimmy Iovine, to help with the production of the records.
This seemingly harmless act did not sit well with NASA, as the words were not included in the very detailed specifications for the Voyager probes. The agency was ready to replace the records with blank discs. Only the intervention of Carl Sagan speaking with the NASA Administrator kept the Golden Records attached to their spacecraft. Using a bit of poetry, Sagan pointed out that the dedication was the only example of human handwriting aboard the Voyagers – although it would not surprise me if a few folks snuck in their signatures and perhaps even a note or two during the assembly process. This was and is a common behavior in the history of lunar and planetary exploration.
The Golden Records do indeed have scientific value – certainly to those who may find them one day, but also for humanity itself. They provide a sociological and psychological study of how we may present ourselves to others, in particular others who are highly intelligent but not necessarily human. Then there was the need for developing technologies and sciences to make these presentations viable aboard a spaceship that has to last a very long time drifting in the interstellar medium and remain readable by non-human beings. The records did not need to have a scientific reason to be a part of the Voyager missions despite the protests, but there they are along with several others, no doubt.
For someone like me, who has immersed himself for a lifetime moving about the worlds of science and the humanities/arts, it is hard to imagine how those who can dream of exploring the stars and all their unknowns – plus actually do something to make those dreams a reality – could simultaneously dismiss and even feel embarrassed and hostile to the idea of life elsewhere, including those capable of finding the probe and its shiny metal gift. However, as consulting producer Jeremy Lipworth said, this “says a lot about humanity,” which is the whole point for the existence of the Golden Record.
On the plus side, it was nice to see several Voyager team members defending what was on the Golden Records, in particular how certain images were not offensive despite public opinion and NASA’s concerns about offending those tax payers. This stemmed from the Golden Records’ predecessors, the Pioneer Plaques, which depicted a representation of a male and female human without any clothing upon them. People complained that the space agency was sending “smut” into space among other issues such as the positions of the man’s appendages compared to the woman, who just seemed to be standing there passively.
Having much more room to work with in comparison to the plaques, the Golden Records used this extra space to show any recipients how humans reproduce – within limits, of course. One photograph initially chosen showed a man and woman – nude again – holding hands and smiling at each other. The woman was clearly pregnant, or at least her condition is apparent to any adult human. NASA rejected this image out of fear of more public backlash, so Voyager Record team artist Jon Lomberg had to replace the tasteful photograph with a silhouette of the couple. This replacement at least had the advantage of showing the fetus developing in the woman’s womb as part of the reproduction story.
In a bit of irony, while the original photograph of the expectant couple was shown in the theatrical release of The Farthest, when the documentary arrived on PBS Television and elsewhere, someone had replaced the nude man and woman with the Lomberg silhouette! If you must see the original image, it may be found in the official book on the Golden Records titled Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record (Random House, 1978), authored by all of the main team members. This is a work that anyone interested in communicating with ETI and Space Age history must have in their library. It would be quite interesting to see how our contemporary prudery might affect the understanding of any record recipients when it came to explaining how the beings who made this by-then ancient artifact and its means of transportation also made copies of themselves.
Speaking of changes to The Farthest between its transition from the cinema to the television screen, I noted in the segment on the Pale Blue Dot where there is a vignette depicting various scenes of human activity on Earth, the whole piece was inexplicably removed from the documentary’s presentation on Netflix (it remained intact in its PBS incarnation).
The scene was a nice visual accompaniment on Carl Sagan’s wonderful explanation during a NASA press conference from 1990 of the last image Voyager 1 ever took, less than one year after its twin probe had successfully flown through the Neptune system. A celebration of human life on Earth in a series of wordless images set to music, it shows what we are, the good and the bad, without becoming too graphic in either direction.
This is somewhat ironic, as the Voyager Record team decided early on only to present the Cosmos with our best face forward so as not to inadvertently frighten or offend any recipients with our less sanguine qualities. Only some of the music pieces give hints to the records’ listeners that we are less than ideal, perfect creatures – though they may be able to figure this out anyway just by examining the Voyagers, which will undoubtedly seem incredibly primitive to them, since we assume those who find the space probes will be experts at interstellar travel and detecting small inert alien vessels in the dark and cold of deep space.
As for this unexpected edit to The Farthest, I must wonder if anyone at Netflix consulted with the documentary makers before making this cut, or if they just decided to second-guess the artists’ decision for reasons I do not readily see, either practical or aesthetic. Removing this celebration of the Pale Blue Dot may have done no permanent damage to The Farthest in terms of conveying information about the Voyager missions, but it did diminish a bit what made this documentary a cut above those works which are in essence a dry recitation of facts.
Having pointed out what was removed from The Farthest, this is a good time and place to state my desire for there to have been much more of and about the contents of the Golden Record in the documentary. Naturally they played samples of the record’s actual sounds, voices, images, and music throughout the film: The very first scene displayed a reproduction of part of the letter written by then U.S. President Jimmy Carter specifically for the Golden Record and its recipients. The interview with Nick Sagan gave an illuminating background as to what it was like putting the language segments together, at least in one particular case.
It was also fun to see the Saturday Night Live origin of the joke that any aliens who listened to the record would respond with “Send more Chuck Berry!” given by comedian Steve Martin. Later on we were treated to the amazing moment when, during a celebration of the wildly successful Voyager missions in 1989, both Chuck Berry and Carl Sagan got up together on stage at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, singing and dancing to the musician’s hit single, “Johnny B. Goode” – the only representation of rock-and-roll music among the Golden Record’s 27 international songs.
With the highlights of the positive aspects of the Golden Record as shown in The Farthest duty noted, this documentary made me realize just how much I wanted to see far more about that grooved disc and its contents. Just as its story could and did fill an entire book along with countless articles and stories in the intervening years, the Voyager Interstellar Record deserves its own film documentary to do it proper justice in presenting itself to the vast majority of humanity. After all, it was explicitly designed to be our representative to the rest of the Milky Way galaxy, so I say the species that it speaks for should be given the chance to really see the Golden Record should they so desire it.
Of the two hours of samples from humanity and our world, over ninety minutes of the record’s offerings are devoted to global music. The Farthest gave most of its time in regards to the music to Chuck Berry’s landmark song. Certainly at least for Western audiences, “Johnny B. Goode” was probably among the best known of all the record pieces. It also had the benefit of very relevant and entertaining visuals to go with it.
Berry’s pioneering rock-and-roll number was not the only well-known song on the Golden Record, however. Even those who may know little about Ludwig van Beethoven know at least the first few bars of his Fifth Symphony, which are now preserved for eons in deep space. As for my earlier mention of how the record music contains the few indications that humanity is an imperfect species, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” by blues musician Blind Willie Johnson was chosen, in the words of Timothy Ferris in Murmurs of Earth:
“Johnson’s song concerns a situation he faced many times: Nightfall with no place to sleep. Since humans appeared on Earth, the shroud of night has yet to fall without touching a man or woman in the same plight.”
The final song on the Golden Record, which immediately follows Johnson’s number, was another Beethoven piece: The String Quartet No. 13 in B flat, Opus 130, Cavatina. It is a melancholy number made at a particularly dark time in the fading years of the composer’s life. However, this piece of music, like the being and species who made it, is neither simple nor provides simple answers to its meanings, as I quote Ferris once again from Murmurs of Earth:
“But sadness alone can’t define the Cavatina. Strains of hope run through it as well, and something of the serenity of a man who has endured suffering and come to terms with existence perceived without illusion.
“It may be that these ambiguities make for an appropriate conclusion to the Voyager record. We who are living the drama of human life on Earth do not know what measure of sadness or hope is appropriate to our existence. We do not know whether we are living a tragedy or a comedy or a great adventure. The dying Beethoven had no answers to these questions, and knew he had no answers, and had learned to live without them. In the Cavatina, he invites us to stare that situation in the face.”
There was also a recording of the thoughts of Voyager Record team member Ann Druyan conducted on an EEG machine, where she consciously pondered various historical ideas, events, and persons for one hour, along with “the exception of a couple of irrepressible facts” from her life. This part of the record’s development also did not appear in The Farthest, along with the conspicuous absence of Druyan herself. With both Druyan and Carl Sagan largely removed from having a direct influence on the documentary – Sagan passed away in December of 1996 from myelodysplasia, although clips of him conducting earlier interviews permeate the film and provide some measure of his presence there – I was left to wonder how the Golden Record might have been presented had the couple been around for their input, especially together.
The makers of The Farthest emphasized multiple times how much they wanted to bring out the human aspects of the Voyager missions. They did accomplish this, but as my examples have shown, there is so much more that was left untapped by this documentary which needs to be shared with the widest audiences possible. When you are trying to describe a complex and incredibly productive space expedition that is half a century in its making and undertaking in less than two hours aimed at an audience that is curious but not expected to be very knowledgeable about its subject matter, the best you can achieve is a sampler of the Voyager missions.
For those who care, The Farthest can only serve to whet one’s appetite for more. That a full-on documentary series or even a historical film (or mini-series) about the Golden Records has yet to be made after all this time is surprising, given all the depth, drama, and excitement that went into their realization.
I do not count John Carpenter’s 1984 science fiction film Starman as a proper answer to my request. Although it is a well-done film, the Golden Record only serves as the catalyst for the rest of the story. Besides, the film had The Rolling Stone’s 1965 song “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” as part of the music selection on the record, which is patently false. Plus, if the ETI captured Voyager 2 in space in 1984, this would presumably disrupt its mission to the planet Uranus two years later and Neptune three years after that. We did not witness if the aliens released the space probe back onto its flight path, but the visiting ETI’s scout ship was later found on Earth with the Golden Record inside it, thus denying other potential recipients of the Voyager the chance to encounter the disc and its contents, presuming the robotic craft was allowed to continue on its cosmic journey. The aliens interpreted the record’s messages as a peaceful invitation to our world, which they did with a representative of their advanced species – only to have their scout ship and its lone occupant shot down by a missile.
There especially needs to be driven home the fact that Voyager 1 and 2 are now on their final, ultimate mission as ambassadors of Earth and humanity to the rest of the galaxy. Yes, they are still functioning and taking important measurements of the interstellar medium, but the reasons they were sent into space in the first place are now long behind them. What the Voyagers did was both extraordinary and ground-breaking for planetary science, of course, but now other deep space probes have followed in their paths, with more sophisticated instrumentation and revealing data that surpasses their mechanical ancestors. That is the evolution of planetary exploration.
Humanity is a short-lived species, both individually and culturally. Human life spans average about eighty years at present, while we have only had any semblance of a civilized society for roughly six thousand years – mere drops in the cosmic bucket as the phrase goes. The Voyager Records will last for at least one billion years if not much longer even by conservative estimates of their survivability in interstellar space.
To contrast and compare: One billion years ago, Earth’s first multicellular plants were just starting to move onto dry land from the oceans. The evolution of more sophisticated terrestrial creatures were still hundreds of million years in the future. The Voyagers may even survive the demise of Sol and Earth, assuming our planetary system has not already undergone some radical transformation – natural or otherwise – before then.
This is why the actions of a relatively small collection of humans forty years ago to boldly charge into the void called space and simultaneously dare to imagine communicating with unknown alien intelligences in some unimaginable far future time – all with technologies that were becoming obsolete before they even completed their first mission milestones – are an incredible and deeply important story that must be told now and for the edification of our descendants. Sharing our past with our future should and must be done the way the Voyager missions and the Golden Records were put together, as a complimenting fusion of science and artistry.
The Farthest was a very good start, but the tale has hardly even begun.
To see more about this documentary along with the Voyager space probes and the Golden Records, visit the official PBS Television Web site.