Human beings are a naturally curious species - we strive to discover the truth about life, the universe and everything. Unfortunately, unlike Douglas Adams’ versatile “42”, the answer in reality isn’t quite so simple. As we venture outwards from our corner in space, we begin to realise how much still remains unknown to us. The most ambitious project to date with the intent of gathering new information on our universe is Voyager, which has taken humanity further into the stars than we’ve ever been before. A new documentary, ‘The Farthest’, introduces us to the team who made it possible, and takes us from the challenge of the initial construction through to the wonder of discovering new knowledge about our galaxy.
Back in the 70s, a wild idea for a space mission was concocted: sending two space probes to study the outer planets in our solar system, and continue on beyond the heliopause and through to interstellar space. The entire mission relied on a once-in-176-year planetary alignment and used gravity-assisted slingshot trajectories to extend its journey. As if the mission itself wasn’t enough of a technical and design nightmare, trying to best utilise 1970s technology, it was also decided Voyager should act as something of a time capsule for humanity, should any other lifeforms discover it.
The latter is probably what the Voyager is best known for these days - the Golden Record affixed to the side. It was compiled by a team lead by astronomer/cosmologist/astrophysicist/astrobiologist Carl Sagan, and holds a combination of greetings in 55 languages, music from around the world, and data of images from Earth. In the interviews with the Voyager team, it’s amazing to see how optimistic they are about other life in the universe - scientists who believe it’s far too big a place for there not to be.
The interview subjects include a seriously impressive range of people who were involved in Voyager’s mission. John Casani, project manager. Edward Stone, who became one of the key spokespersons for the mission. Larry Soderblom, geophysicist. Carolyn Porco, who was part of the Imaging Team. Astronomer Frank Drake and Rolling Stone editor Timothy Ferris, who worked with Carl Sagan on the Golden Record project. They talk us through the design challenges, the near misses, the discoveries and the distasters, and present a lot of very intricate scientific jargon in a fascinatingly digestible way. Perhaps it’s their passion - each and every one involved speaks with such excitement and spirit it’s impossible not to become absorbed.
Each and every one involved speaks with such excitement and spirit it’s impossible not to become absorbed.
Writer/director Emer Reynolds, whose skills were honed for years in the edit suite, has shown great skills of both storytelling and aesthetic. The interviews are shot beautifully, and interspersed with archival footage and animations, as well as symbolic shots which give the documentary a poetic touch. Somehow, she has managed to encapsulate a five-decade history, from Voyager’s inception to it going interstellar, into an electrifying two hours.
As I sit here and write this, Voyager 1 is over 20 billion kilometres away from the Earth. That’s an impossible distance to imagine, even when you try to simplify it - it’s like travelling around the earth over 515,000 times, or travelling to the sun and back 69 times. ‘The Farthest’ feels like a fitting tribute for the 40th anniversary of Voyager’s launch, a symbol of the human ability which allowed us to learn more about our solar system, and make our mark on the universe. 40 years may seem like a long time, but it has millions of years to go in its mission - long after we’ve lost touch with it, Voyager will remain a message in a bottle that has captured a small piece of life on Earth.