Where no-one has gone before – The Farthest

The Farthest,

Directed by Emer Reynolds

Another of my slate of screenings at the recent Edinburgh International Film Festival was this gem of a science documentary from Irish director Emer Reynolds, on one of the greatest feats of exploration – the Voyager missions. I’ve been a space geek for as long as I’ve been a science fiction fan, the two interests often cross-feeding one another (the great Arthur C Clarke incorporated new knowledge gleaned from Voyager and other missions into some of his science fiction writing). And I grew up with Voyager, launched in 1977 when I was just a kid, I followed the missions, in those long ago, pre-internet days through the old fashioned media of documentaries on the BBC, the Sky at Night and journals like New Scientist, right through to my teens and early adulthood as this long, long mission progressed, taking us on a “grand tour” of the outer planets and showing sights no human had ever seen before.

The history and the science will be familiar to many who have an interest in space exploration, but this is a story that is well worth revisiting, because it is a magnificent triumph of ideas made real by clever engineering, and that human urge to explore pushing us further than ever before; our ancestors, be they European seaman or the great Polynesian navigators on wood and reed rafts, sailed vast oceans of the Earth, exploring, and with Voyager we sailed a sea of stars to the distant planets… And then beyond.

The two Voyagers took in giant worlds, including a couple we didn’t even know existed until a couple of centuries ago and revealed more complexity and wonder than anyone dared hope for, from the searing radiation around mighty Jupiter and its moons, those wonderful rings around Saturn, those cold, remote outer giants of Neptune and Uranus. It showed us volcanic eruptions on a world other than our own for the first time, and these probes traveled billions of miles from our home, reprogrammed from the increasingly distant Earth for each mission, clever maths taking them on a course not just to worlds, but using the gravity of those worlds to “slingshot” onto their next trajectory (receiving a speed boost into the process). Kepler and Newtown would have approved. All this with 1970s technology…

NASA and JPL opened their archives to the film-makers, and while anyone with an interest will have seen some of this, there is much here that has rarely, or never, been shown. A small amount of CG compliments the real Voyager footage to give us views of the craft themselves, but the images Voyagers 1 and 2 brought us are the main visual focus here; a beautiful scene shows a time-lapse montage of a planetary approach by Voyager, from its perspective, from distant disc to close-up details, even clouds. The clouds scudding across the skies of another world. Astonishing.

But the real heart here – as with The Last Man on the Moon, which I reviewed here last year – is the human element. The people who worked on Voyager. The engineers who designed them, the scientists who worked on the missions, the people who conceived of and executed the famous Gold Disc both craft carry, with two hours of music from different eras and cultures on Earth, and greetings in many languages, including one by a young Nick Sagan, Carl Sagan’s wee boy: “hello from the children of Planet Earth”. A message in a bottle, afloat on a galactic sea. Coming through all of this film, Emer Reynolds draws out the science team, and brings genuine emotion to the film. There’s huge pride at what they accomplished, taking advantage of a rare alignment of the planets for this astounding mission, and how they made new discoveries and saw things for the very first time that no human had even known about, let alone seen.

There’s even a lovely bit of archive footage of a party after the final fly-by, when a special guest arrives to play music to the team – Chuck Berry. Of course he played Johnny B Goode, which is on the Gold Disc, and there among the celebrating science team is dear Carl Sagan, dancing happily to Chuck Berry. It’s unlikely any alien intelligence will ever find Voyager and get to play that disc, but as one scientist noted, it’s not impossible. And the very inclusion of it was a mark of enormous optimism, a reaching out, here we are, we’re just learning our first steps out of the cradle, but look what we have achieved already, please contact us. If it isn’t discovered by some other species in the future, the craft will continue on, possibly outlasting the Earth itself, a slice of human culture preserved among the stars.

And as the film notes, these remarkable wee craft are still working, forty years after launch. Their last encounter with the planets was long ago, but they still send daily data back home – one engineer commented that when they were launched back in 1977 the technology to receive signals from such a distant source didn’t exist, they made it while the probes flew on, to listen into a whisper in the cosmos. After the remarkable planetary encounters there was still science and wonder to be had, from the Sagan-inspired “family portrait” of the solar system (when he argued for turning the cameras back towards Earth, now not even a pixel wide to Voyager’s lenses, the “pale blue dot”), to seeking out the heliopause, the point where the influence of our sun ends, marking the boundary of the solar system. In 2012 Voyager 1, the fastest moving of the pair, finally detected the end of this influence; it officially crossed the boundary, leaving our solar system, the first human-created object into interstellar deep space. No wonder those scientists were so proud of what they accomplished.

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2017 - The Farthest 02
(director Emer Reynolds and editor Tony Cranstoun talking about The Farthest at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, pic from my Flickr)

And one day, when the power finally fades, and those last reports dwindle into static, Voyagers will still have one mission as they continue on to the stars: the gold disc, humanity’s message in a bottle, that wonderful optimism that permeated the Voyager missions, that Reynolds brings out in her interviews with the science team in the film, will power that final mission, perhaps forever. This is a remarkable documentary, celebrating the ingenuity, the science, glorying in the wonders discovered, but above all it is about the people behind it, who built a dream and sailed it across the worlds. For anyone interested in science and space exploration this is unmissable.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog; The Farthest will be released in Irish cinemas on July 28th

The Pale Blue Dot

During the epic Voyager missions, after one of those innovative little mechanical explorers had finished with its primary mission to give us our most astonishing close up encounters with the most distant worlds in our solar system in a detail that Galileo and Copernicus could never have dreamed possible, it was re-tasked and reprogrammed to turn around to look back into our solar system from the cold, dark edge of our own little stellar neighbourhood. The late, great Carl Sagan was one of those who campaigned for this to happen – no small feat given the codes to reprogramme the distant probe would take hours to reach it even travelling at the light speed of radio waves, so far was it from home now, and there was no true scientific knowledge to be gained from this move.

Sagan, however, always understood that science has to appeal to both the heart as well as the head, emotion and intellect, and be able to make everyone grasp why it was important to us. The spacecraft was turned and took what is now known as the family portrait, a view of most of the planets in our solar system, a perspective no-one in the entire history of humanity had ever beheld before, a real “going where no-one had gone before” moment. In that family portrait is a pale, blue dot, not even an entire pixel in size – our world, the Earth. As Sagan put it, everything any of us has ever known, every person we have read of, every person who built a monument we’ve gazed at, everyone we have ever loved and all those who came before them, right back to the emergence of our ancestors out of ancient Africa’s cradle to start out human journey, every one of them, peasant and king alike, lived on that tiny dot. Joel Somerfield’s animation is very short but celebrates that moment, using the words of Sagan, a moment when emotion and science, heart and intellect, gave our species a new perspective on the majesty of creation and our own place in it, just a tiny mote floating in the glow of the sun, miniscule in astronomical terms, fragile, but never, ever unimportant, but a wonder in a sea of wonders, a haven of spectacularly diverse life. Our home.

Pale Blue Dot from ORDER on Vimeo.