“Voyager was the right spacecraft at the right time.”
No, Constant Reader, it is not a Star Trek episode. It is, in fact, a documentary about what is possibly one of the weirdest, and certainly most thought-provoking, space missions ever attempted: the Voyager mission, which back in 1977 sent two space probes out into the furthest reaches of the Solar System to visit Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune (possibly in that order, but I may have got Saturn and Uranus the wrong way round). That’s cool enough, but get this: they’re still going. 37 years later, we’re still getting information from them. They’re beyond Neptune, beyond Pluto, they’re outside the solar system, further than anything man-made has ever been, and they are still awake. And we are watching them.
Isn’t that awesome?
So I suppose I should talk about the actual documentary. It follows the journey of the Voyager probes, but it mainly concentrates (as these things frequently do) on the terrestrial stories behind that journey: the technological and scientific struggles actually to get the craft to work for long enough, under enough radiation, to reach the outer planets; the various (but remarkably few, considering) setbacks to the mission; the palpable excitement of the scientists and members of the press who watched, live, the pictures being beamed back as the probes passed each planet in turn. It’s sadly uninformative about what those pictures actually tell us about the planets: what bearing does the fact that Saturn’s moon Titan has poles of solid nitrogen have on our wider understanding of that system, for instance? But what science is relayed is explained coherently without being patronising: there’s this clever gravitational slingshot technique that the Voyager probes used to get all the way out to Neptune without needing fuel which I hadn’t come across before, and I was surprised and delighted to find that I actually understood it. The excitement and enthusiasm of the various talking heads – most of them members of the original Voyager team – was infectious, too (although does anyone else think that Carl Sagan sounds uncannily like Agent Smith from The Matrix?), although the narrator’s habit of calling every single player in the drama “young” made me want to strangle him after about five minutes. “A young engineer found the solution…” “A young member of the Voyager team made a breakthrough…” YES, WE GET IT, THEY’RE ALL QUITE YOUNG.
There’s no question that the Voyager mission is utterly fascinating, though. It reminds us how very small we are against the wide backdrop of the universe, a little blue dot sailing through the void. And yet there’s hope, too: those gold records on board? The ones with Bach and Fleetwood Mac and all the people saying hello in different languages? They’ll last longer than we will; longer than the Earth itself, maybe. A little piece of human history, sailing out into the void. That’s nice. And it’s nice for people to understand that, too. Voyager: To the Final Frontier is, I think, a good, accessible look at some science exciting enough to be science fiction.