Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Farthest - two middle-aged space probes take a road-trip (QFT 1-14 Sep)

Bring tissues because this film is an emotionally charged fly past.

Given that the two Voyager craft have been flying through space for the best part of forty years, it’s entirely appropriate to devote two hours of cinema time to chart the drama of their conception, birth, life … and in a funny way, their after life in the film The Farthest.

The official, cut-back mission plan was to fly past Jupiter and Saturn, but the original big hairy audacious goal to go on a grand tour of the universe and the stated trajectory allowed the Voyager team to extend the flight path to take in bonus destinations of Uranus and Neptune if some key objectives were met.

The technology on board the vessels is as old as I am. At one stage, a scientist involved in the mission reminds the watching audience that there’s more memory on your car’s electronic key fob than the Voyager craft (which has a mere 32K across its six subsystems). More than a billion miles away from Earth, with signals taking hours to reach the yoghurt pot – well, antenna – at the other end of the wet string, the NASA team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory reprogrammed each Voyager probe to give it new tricks as it prepared to fly past each new planet.

Irish director Emer Reynolds allows the construction, launch and flypasts to inject their own drama into the documentary that is dominated by talking heads that reflect rather than gloat. So much went wrong. So much more could have gone wrong. The Voyager programme ran in parallel with the Space Shuttle programme, and the Challenger tragedy casts its shadow over Voyager 1’s interplanetary success.

Mission specialists – who, it’s got to be said, age well – speak both of the scientific endeavour and their investment in the truly interstellar journeys, as well as unpacking the cultural and extraterrestrial communication aspects of the mission which included carrying a ‘golden record’ of songs, pictures and greetings from around the world. (A needle and cartridge as well as pictorial instructions on how to build a record player were included!) This softer side was all down to scientist and communicator Carl Sagan, who also forced NASA to agree to spin Voyager 1 to face ‘homeward’ to take a ‘family portrait’ of the solar system. Earth famously showed up as a ‘pale blue dot’.

Voyager 1 has now entered interstellar space, the first human object to do so. (You can track both probes’ progress on the JPL website.) While the energy source that powers the radios and remaining instruments will deplete over the next century, some of those involved in the mission soberly suggest that since the unpowered craft is very unlikely to collide with anything, it may continue to fly through space long after the dying Sun destroys the Earth!

Composer Ray Harman composed the soundtrack around the words being spoken, adding a flourish here and there to underline the on-screen action. If like the probes the film could have been re-edited while playing – perhaps that’ll be available in an interactive planetarium version with voting buttons? – I’d have removed some of the detail about the production of the record and concentrated on the science and the complexity of talking to an object the size of a school bus that is faster and faster moving further and further away from the Earth.

It’s a film about ambition and invention (kitchen grade tin foil was wrapped around the cabling), about perspective and loneliness.

Embrace your inner space geek, sit in the darkened cinema screen – to be fair, it’ll be no where near as dark as space – and watch the imagery that was sent back from the two middle-aged spacecraft. Open up your childlike imagination and wonder at the majesty of the solar system(s). And ponder our perch in the expanse of the universe.

The Farthest is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre between Friday 1 and Thursday 14 September. The 6pm screening on Monday 4 (the evening before the 40th anniversary of Voyager 1’s launch) will be followed by a Q&A with director Emer Reynolds.

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