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PBS goes deep to follow Voyager into space

PBS goes deep to follow Voyager into space

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Gail Pennington is the television critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

"The Farthest: Voyager in Space" • 9 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 23, on PBS • A repeat of the eclipse edition "Nova" airs at 8 p.m.

Forty years ago this fall, two American spacecraft began a journey that would take them where none had gone before.

Voyagers 1 and 2 were launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on a mission to explore the outer solar system, first Jupiter and Saturn, and then, if all went well, Uranus and Neptune. And then? Who knew?

PBS marks the anniversary with “The Farthest: Voyager in Space" (9 p.m. Wednesday), a documentary that flashes back to the 1970s to look at the origins of the Voyager project as it came together, overcoming obstacles that must have seemed impossible at the time.

Fortunately, many members of the original Voyager team are alive to share their recollections in the documentary, including Ed Stone, Voyager’s chief scientist for 45 years.

Stone was on hand recently when PBS introduced “The Farthest” to TV critics in Los Angeles, joined by Tim Ferris, who produced the famous “golden record” sent into space to say hello and explain a bit about us to any civilizations the two Voyagers ran into.

The record, made of copper plated in gold, includes voices and music of all kinds, most notably the late Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” “Saturday Night Live” reacted at the time by reporting a message from alien worlds demanding, “Send more Chuck Berry.”

Bob Dylan was second choice to Berry. But “I don’t think (Dylan’s) lyrical brilliance is as likely to reach an extraterrestrial,” Ferris explained.

The record, by the way, didn’t just assume an alien civilization would know what it was and be able to play it. It was sent with a stylus, needle and visual instructions.

Fascinating as it is, the record (now available on CD in a 40th anniversary edition) isn’t actually the most interesting thing about the Voyager mission.

The photos Voyagers 1 and 2 sent back from Jupiter and Saturn gave us visual knowledge about planets previously seen only as distant and murky objects on telescopes.

“Voyager really gave us a new view of the solar system, revealed things that we couldn’t have imagined, and really (told us) how diverse the bodies are in the solar system,” says Stone, 81.

The information showed “all the same physical processes that we’re familiar with here on Earth, but they came out in much different forms and much different histories. That’s the thing which really told us that our terracentric view of planets was really much too limited, not just a little bit, but greatly too limited.”

For example, “We now understand things much better about planets and moons and rings and magnetic fields than we did, just from what we learned and have learned about Earth.”

Even Stone, who jokes that he has “made a career” out of Voyager, admits being happily surprised at the project’s longevity.

“We always had an interstellar component as part of our goal, but none of us knew how far it was to interstellar space, and none of us knew that a spacecraft could last 40 years,” he says.

“When Voyager was launched, the Space Age itself was 20 years old, so there was just no basis to know that things could last this long. And we’ve been very lucky.”

Stone credits “the design of the spacecraft, which really has given it its long life.” How much longer will it last?

“We are slowly but surely losing power because of natural radioactive decay, and that means half of it disappears every 88 years. And so we now know that in about 10 years, we will no longer have enough power to keep all the instruments on and in the spacecraft.”

Voyager has taught us “what nature is like and how to understand it,” Stone says. “Day after day during encounters, we had a flood of new information, which was really a joy to be able to be part of that process for six different encounters.”

Now, the team is watching “the first spacecraft to interstellar space, where we’ve left the bubble the sun creates around itself and entered into space filled with stuff that’s come from stars other than our sun, from supernova, which blew up 5, 10, 15 million years ago.”

Surprises are still to come, Stone believes.

“The surprise will be something we aren’t smart enough to know that’s out there waiting for us to discover,” he says. “Voyager has taught us that what we think we know we probably don’t really fully know. This is discovery.”

PBS also looks to the sky in “Beyond a Year in Space” (Nov. 15), a follow-up to last March’s “A Year in Space.”

The first documentary followed astronauts and identical twins Mark and Scott Kelly as Scott spent a year on the International Space Station while Mark stayed on the ground.

The second “picks up where the original left off (and) chronicles more than just Scott’s homecoming by diving into the physical and emotional effects of his journey,” PBS’ Beth Hoppe said.

Scott Kelly, introduced to TV critics recently in Los Angeles, had said on coming home that he was glad he had completed the mission but wouldn’t do it a second time. But he has changed his mind. “I think I’m far enough away from it now that if you asked me the same question I would say absolutely. Yeah. Sign me up.”

Today, he said, “I think I’m pretty much back to normal as far as how I feel. ... I felt completely back to normal after maybe, like, eight months.”

And by the way, there’s television in space, sometimes even live television.

“I mostly watched CNN,” Kelly said. “But I saved ‘Game of Thrones” to binge-watch in space. I’d never seen it before. I watched it twice, it was so good.”

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Gail Pennington is the television critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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