Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Review: The Farthest

I saw The Farthest last night at the Tribeca Film Festival and highly recommend it. This is about the Voyager space probes and the people who sent them to the outer solar system and beyond. That mission not only opened vast new vistas of exploration but also marked an early example of the synergy of humans and robots in achieving unprecedented things (and, remarkably, doing it with 1970s computing technology now comparable to a key fob). The film does an adept job at interweaving science communication, striking imagery and personal recollections, with narration provided by numerous interviews with project scientists, engineers and other participants.

My lifelong interest in space exploration was sparked in considerable degree, I'm sure, by seeing the images of Jupiter and Saturn returned by the Voyagers in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Seeing the film's interview with Linda Morabito, the astronomer who first saw an image of a volcanic eruption on Jupiter's moon Io, reminded me that I saw her in a TV interview back at the time. It was also good to see Nick Sagan, my onetime colleague, discuss his parents' and his own involvement with the golden record, which includes his own voice saying immortally, "Hello from the children of planet Earth." A very funny bit of the movie recalls a press conference about that record that NASA, reluctant to emphasize the mission's "alien" aspect, relegated to a hotel banquet hall with a wedding in progress on the other side of a room divider.

I expect the film will find an audience among the sorts of people I've worked with in science- and space-focused journalism, and I hope it will find a broader audience as well. An interesting perspective from the filmmakers, who were present last night for a Q and A and who are from Ireland, is that this is a uniquely American story; no other country has done anything like this, on such a scale. At the same time (and as reflected in the multilingual, multicultural golden record) the mission was an achievement for humanity at large. And while this particular feat won't happen again (it hinged on a once-in-176-year planetary alignment) may the future have much more where that came from.