Film

‘Homeric’ odyssey through space for twin capsules
The Farthest (G)

Science fiction has become science fact. In the clock of history, man has gone from relative ignorance of the movements of the planets (viz. Ptolemy) to Galilean/Einsteinian enlightenment.

Many people think the acme of this psychic evolution occurred in July 1969 when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon but a more fascinating – if less overtly dramatic – phenomenon took place eight years later when two capsules were sent into outer space to navigate the planets Jupiter, Uranus, Saturn and Neptune.

They were launched from NASA as ‘slingshots’ to the aforementioned planets in a ‘fly-by’ mission that enabled them to send images back to Earth – and they’re doing so to this day. In fact Voyagers 1 and 2 will still be zooming around the stratosphere four billion years from now, long after the sun has burned up.

This is a brilliant documentary. It contains lots of interviews with the brains behind the various operations, so many benign and obsessed souls who radiate a childlike sense of wonder in a series of ‘then and now’ encounters from the 70s to the present.  These people are pioneers just as much as Mr Armstrong was – or Christopher Columbus.

Presidency

A lot of the lingo flew above my head. Being the dunderhead I am in matters like this I found myself thinking things like: where does the Voyager get the fuel for four billion years of travel? Are there Texaco stations on Jupiter?

‘The Farthest’ brings us from the presidency of Richard Nixon – who was in power when it was initiated – to that of Barack Obama at the other end. For those of us who are enthralled with the subject it bears all the hallmarks of a thriller. We go from the highs (“Hey – there’s volcanic activity out there!”) to the lows, as when the space shuttle Challenger explodes, killing all on board. Or when – less tragically – the scan platform for the images malfunctions and has to be adjusted. 

For a lot of the time the two Voyagers were ‘flying blind’. They didn’t know what they were going to find.  Strange stars?  Populated planets? Or just somewhere, as one speaker puts it, “as dull as the Moon”? (I never found the moon dull but these people are operating on such a massive scale that our beloved moon is just a piece of rock ‘down the road’.)

The excursions also had a cultural element. Voyager 1 was fitted with a soundtrack which ‘advertised’ the earth’s music to any aliens who might want to groove to the delights of everyone from Beethoven to Chuck Berry.

Berry’s song ‘Johnny B. Goode’ features on it.  I don’t know what an extra-terrestrial would make of his unique brand of rock but it certainly moved me when it came out. I hope it will have the same effect on any green-faced Neptunian with large antennae who happens to hear it.

Go, Johnny, go, go, go.

Very Good ****