You don’t have to be a science geek to love Emer Reynolds’ fascinating documentary about NASA’s landmark Voyager mission that launched two unmanned spacecraft to explore the outer reaches of the solar system. Being given a limited theatrical release in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of the 1977 launch, The Farthest should garner greater appreciative audiences when it airs later this month on PBS.
“This may be, in the long run, the only evidence that we ever existed,” comments one of the many NASA scientists who worked on the project about the spacecraft that might outlive the human race. Indeed, they’re still continuing their mission four decades after their launch, having now entered interstellar space.
Out of this world.
Despite the plethora of talking heads featured, The Farthest feels more cinematic than many documentaries thanks to the effective CGI images depicting Voyager 1 and 2’s journeys and the photographs they’ve taken over the years. They were originally supposed to travel only to Saturn and Jupiter, but a rare planetary alignment, one that takes place only every 176 years, allowed NASA to extend their mission to Uranus and Neptune and beyond. (That the scientists pronounce “Uranus” with an emphasis on the first syllable admittedly takes some of the fun out it.)
The film is filled with amazing facts, such as that the two Voyagers’ computing technology was not that of a smartphone, as has become the cliché, but rather more like a key fob. Or that ordinary aluminum foil was added at the last minute for the purpose of shielding them from radiation.
Much of the documentary focuses on the “Golden Record,” the LP-like disc (made of metal rather than vinyl) included on both Voyagers. With a design spearheaded by famed scientist Carl Sagan, it featured such things as greetings to whatever aliens came across it, recorded in dozens of languages, as well as photographs representing the diversity of life on Earth and musical selections from around the globe, including Chuck Berry’s “Johny B. Goode” (the famed rocker is shown performing his signature tune at the launch party as dozens of NASA employees gleefully danced along). Berry was far more magnanimous in donating his record to the project than The Beatles, who refused to allow any of their music to be used for interplanetary purposes.
The record also included a line, “Hello from the children of planet Earth,” uttered by Sagan’s then 7-year-old son who reminisces about the casual manner in which he recorded it. It’s but one of many amusing details about the record’s creation, such as that a planned photograph of a naked man and a naked pregnant woman (one figure involved in the project explains that pregnant women weren’t considered sexy) was nixed by NASA because of its supposed prurience.
The scientists’ joy as they discuss the mission proves infectious. “Voyager, to me, was Homeric,” one rhapsodizes. The spacecraft beamed back revelatory pictures of the four planets and their moons, although much to everyone’s disappointment, it turned out that Uranus wasn’t particularly photogenic.
The Farthest ultimately proves a welcome and invaluable reminder, in these budget-challenged times, that space exploration is of boundless importance. One of the film’s most powerfully moving moments deals with Sagan’s insistence that, after completing its mission to Jupiter and Saturn, one of the Voyager’s cameras be turned back to Earth. The resulting images proved of no scientific value, but as Sagan poetically explained, they revealed the planet resembling a small blue dot as the place on which “everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives … on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” If that doesn’t get you thinking, nothing will.
Production company: Crossing the Line Productions
Director-screenwriter: Emer Reynolds
Producers: John Murray, Clare Stronge
Executive producers: Sean B. Carroll, Dennis Liu, Keith Potter, John Rubin
Director of photography: Kate McCullough
Editor: Tony Cranstoun
Production designer: Joe Fallover
Composer: Ray Harman