The laws of physics are universal; it has taken thousands of years to extrapolate them from the evidence of the everyday, but they govern the motion of objects large and small, from the swing of a pendulum to the orbit of the largest planet. Newton knew that his lofty position of insight into the truth of nature was granted by his achievements of his equally gifted predecessors.
So it was that before Newton came Kepler, before him Copernicus, and so on back to Ptolemy, each of them trying to comprehend the mechanism which powers the clockwork of the solar system, and like any mechanism there are patterns which repeat, one of which brings an alignment of the planets approximately once every one hundred and seventy six years, at which time a voyager might depart the Earth and traverse all the known outer solar system bodies, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.
When Richard Nixon was president of the United States of America in the early 1970s, the scientists of NASA informed him of the fact that during the previous alignment that President Thomas Jefferson had failed to launch a wooden sailing ship to the stars; his ego suitably primed, despite the price tag of over a billion dollars Nixon grudgingly agreed to indulge what was a once-in-several-lifetimes opportunity, and the Voyager programme was initiated.
Celebrated in a lavish new documentary, The Farthest, those two probes, Voyager Two launched on August 20th 1977 and Voyager One launched on September 5th 1977, sixteen days later but on a faster trajectory so it soon overtook its sibling, undertook a mission whose every discovery was significant and indisputably unique, images, recordings and measurements never seen or analysed by any human being up until that point.
Written and directed by Emer Reynolds and screening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, The Farthest gathers a constellation of scientists and engineers who worked on the project, designing the probes and calculating the orbits and solving the problems and theorising on the data furnished on that long journey into endless night which still continues, forty years later, Voyager One now beyond the heliopause, the boundary between our solar system and interstellar space, the farthest object built by humans from our humble planet and still travelling fast.
Opening with a repeating image which makes no sense until further information is received by the viewer, the flickering light then resolving into a comprehensible image, the challenge of perception extends beyond our world: how would an alien understand anything we showed to them? The next visuals have meaning in our lives, even shot at odd angle and out of context; we understand, but how could they?
Yet that was the challenge of what was to drive one of the aspects of the Voyager programme, an etched metal phonograph record whose cover portrayed symbolic representations of man and woman and the location of Sol in relation to nearby pulsars, the record itself containing recordings of samples of languages, a variety of voices of humans and other major species and twenty seven musical recordings sourced from across cultures.
Frank Drake, who conceived the famous equation whose values estimate the likelihood or otherwise of intelligent species in the galaxy, knows where his work sits in the pecking order of public recognition: “The main attention goes to the golden record.” For Voyager was not only about knowing the planets, it was about us as species offering our planet to whoever might one day find the probe, be it millions of years after we are all dead.
“It’s a pretty small spacecraft and it’s a pretty big galaxy,” says planetary scientist Heidi Hemmel, but she is undaunted. “There’s a lot of possibility out there.” Candy Hansen-Koharcheck of the Voyager Imaging Team shares her enthusiasm: “It’s a very human thing to ask questions. It’s a very childlike thing to ask millions of questions. And some of us never grow up.”
Her colleague Carolyn Porco reflects that those questions drive a purpose. “There is a feeling that our survival as a species is going to depend on our learning how to live on other worlds,” and the Voyager programme brought in astonishing volumes of wholly unexpected information into worlds which until that point had only been glimmers in a telescope whose identities and personalities had been nothing more than conjecture.
A joyful reminiscence by those who participated in the excitement and amazement of those days, even after four decades they still feel and share the emotion of every moment undiminished by the passing years, every challenge, setback, triumph and revelation, making The Farthest a beautiful and uplifting film depicting a task one step away from impossible, but like Neil Armstrong we as a species took that step.
Both probes have lasted longer than envisioned and given more than ever imagined, not only in the immediate science and understanding but in that they showed how much was out there, laying a path and establishing a reason for further missions, among them the more recent Cassini and New Horizons missions even as Voyager One and Two continue outwards unfettered, the size of a school bus and made of silicon and aluminium with less processing power than a key fob but relentlessly pursuing the biggest questions.
“I’d like to know the answer, are we alone?” Porco says. “I’d like to know the answer to that question. There have to be other civilisations. The numbers just compel it. It would be almost statistically impossible for there not to be other life forms and other life forms that have developed to a state of intelligence and beyond.”
Her confidence is infectious, and while two hours might normally be assumed to be an overly generous running time for a documentary here it is barely enough to contain the bounty within, and alongside The Last Man on the Moon and Mission Control, The Farthest is a further reminder that we live in an age of wonders within our reach if we are wise enough and sufficiently bold in our vision. The human adventure is just beginning.