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Far, Farther, Farthest: Voyager’s 40th Anniversary, Still Going Boldly Where No One Has Gone Before.
August 22, 2017  | By Alex Strachan

In 1977, Jimmy Carter had just been elected president, the US population passed 220 million for the first time, the first Apple II computers went on sale, the Soviet Union launched the Soyuz 24 space mission, the NASA space shuttle made its first test flight off the back of an airliner, and a little film called Star Wars opened and immediately had crowds lining around the block.

Oh, and one other thing. Hardly anyone paid much mind to it at the time, of course, but a pair of unmanned space probes, Voyager 1 (left) and Voyager 2, were launched toward the outer reaches of the solar system, on a multi-year mission to fly by Jupiter and Saturn.

It was ten years after the original Star Trek had vanished into TV space, and just two years before a fictionalized version of Voyager would play a pivotal role in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the first big-screen effort to revive one of science fiction’s most enduring TV franchises.

Over the intervening decades, astonishing images came back — not only of Saturn and Jupiter but of their rings and moons.

Voyager 1 didn’t stop there, however. Soon the cold seas of Neptune and Uranus came into view, suddenly and unexpectedly, with almost breathtaking clarity, proving once and for all that truth truly is more wondrous than fiction.

On Aug. 25, 2012, another surprise: Voyager 1 became the first man-made object to enter interstellar space, that void beyond what we know as the solar system, “further than anyone, or anything, in history,” according to a NASA directive at the time.

Since 2013, Voyager has been passing through interstellar space at a speed of 11 miles per second.

The Farthest - Voyager in Space, PBS’s two-hour look back at the Voyager program on the 40th anniversary of its launch, aims to show how a pair of relatively modest space probes revolutionized humankind’s understanding of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune (below right) and eventually ushered humanity into the interstellar age — literally.

For Ed Stone (right), former director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a project scientist of the Voyager Mission since 1972, The Farthest will bring the wonders and achievements of humankind’s most ambitious feat of exploration directly into people’s homes, in terms that even grade-schoolers can understand.

This isn’t science fiction; this is real. And Stone was there from the very beginning.

Just because it’s rocket science doesn’t mean you need to be a rocket scientist to understand it, Stone said late last month, at the summer meeting of the TV Critics Association in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Stone appeared alongside Voyager imaging scientist Carolyn Porco, Timothy Ferris, producer of Voyager’s “Golden Record” (left) — a phonograph recording containing music, images and “greetings from the people of Earth,” for any intelligent life forms that may encounter Voyager on its multi-year mission to go boldly where no one has gone before — and The Farthest program producer John Rubin.

“Voyager really gave us a new view of the solar system, revealed things we couldn’t have imagined, how diverse the bodies are in the solar system,” Stone said. “They share the physical processes we're familiar with here on Earth, but they emerged in much different forms, with much different histories.

“I think that's the thing which really told us that our terra-centric view of planets was really much too narrow, not just a little but greatly so. We now understand things much better about planets and moons and rings and magnetic fields than we did just from what we learned about Earth.”

Stone is now 81, but he feels much as he did when he was a little boy looking at the solar system through a telescope for the first time. He had no idea Voyager would fly not only beyond Jupiter (left) but to the farthest reaches of the solar system and beyond.

“We always had an interstellar component as part of our goal, but none of us knew how far it was to interstellar space,” Stone said. “And none of us knew that a spacecraft could last 40 years. When Voyager was launched, the Space Age itself was 20 years old.  So there was just no basis on which to know that things could last this long. We’ve been very lucky.”

You make your own luck, too, though. A lot of thought was put into Voyager’s design. It wasn’t just winched to the top of a rocket and launched into space, willy-nilly. 

“It’s the design which really has given it its long life,” Stone said.

That said, nothing lasts forever. All good things come to an end eventually.

“We are slowly but surely losing power because of natural radioactive decay. Half of it disappears every 88 years. And so we now know that, in about ten years, we will no longer have enough power to keep all the instruments on and in the spacecraft.”

Knowledge rarely comes easily, but it’s been a fun ride just the same.

“Science is about learning what nature is like and understanding it,” Stone said. “Voyager has taught us that what we think we know we probably don’t really fully know. Day after day, during encounters, we had a flood of new information. It was really a joy to be part of that process for six different encounters. And now it’s the first spacecraft to interstellar space. We’ve left the bubble the sun creates around itself and entered into space that’s filled with stuff that's come from stars other than our sun, from supernovas which blew up five, ten, 15 million years ago. It’s really been a great journey and, as a scientist, just a wonderful opportunity.”

For his part, Ferris admitted producing the Golden Record took on a life of its own. Assuming intelligent life forms would have record players with which to play the record was perhaps a bit of a stretch, he admitted — but, hey, as music lovers are learning to this day, vinyl is forever.

“If I were making the Voyager Record today, I would do it exactly the same way,” Ferris insisted. “Because I can guarantee that it will last at least a billion years. And I can’t do that with any other medium.”

The Voyager record comes complete with its own stylus and needle, in any event, and a diagram on the case to show how it should be played — “including the speed at which you play the record in a binary rotation from the fundamental transition time of the hydrogen atom, which is a basic unit of time,” Ferris added, trying to be helpful.

An album wasn’t released at the time, for good reason, Ferris said.

“Oddly enough, we couldn’t get a record company to release it because so many different labels were represented. And no one wanted to put out a record that had other labels on it.”

That may change now, thanks to Kickstarter and a former student of Ferris’, David Peskovitz. Ain’t modern technology grand?

“I’m happy to say that the record will finally be released,” Ferris said, “remastered from the original for the first time, on the anniversary.”

Stone may be in his eighties, but from his point of view, it all seems like yesterday.

“It’s really been a wonder,” he said. “I mean, you might say they make careers out of this, right?”

The Farthest: Voyager in Space premieres Wednesday, Aug. 23 on PBS at 9ET (check local listings)

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