The Voyager -- the never-ending journey to worlds beyond


Think of them as the Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripkin of outer space, working tirelessly for us. For 40 years, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have kept sending reports about our solar syste and beyond. Now they'll be the subject of a fascinating PBS documentary Wednesday (Aug. 23), Here's the story I sent to papers: 

By Mike Hughes

Let's ignore any
complaints about underachieving government projects.

Instead, consider
the Voyager spacecrafts: Far surpassing their assignments, they've
continued for 40 years, going beyond our solar system. That outstrips
some (but not all) of the humans involved:

-- Suzanne Dodd, the
current project manager? When the Voyager was launched, she was a
teen-ager in Gig Harbor, Wash. “I was more concerned with getting
my driver's license,” she recalled.

-- And Ed Stone, the
chief scientist? He's actually had that job from the start. “You
might say (I could) make a career out of this,” he joked.

Now the epic story
is being told in a “Nova” documentary that includes many of the
key people.

Stone, the former
Jet Propulsion Lab chief, is 81, savoring decades of findings. “None
of us knew that a spacecraft could last 40 years,” he said. “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.”

It won't last
forever. Stone estimates that Voyager 2 will quit transmitting data
in a couple years, but Voyager 1 may continue for another decade.
That's far from certain, he said. “Voyager has taught us that what
we think we know, we probably don't fully know.”

This was a project
that had to be rushed, to meet a planetary alignment that happens
once every 176 years. Technology was limited -- most cellphones have
more computing power than the Voyager, Stone said – and
improvisation was needed. Also: “There was a little bit of
subversiveness in there,” said Carolyn Porco, a Voyager imaging
scientist.

The first idea was
to design four spacecraft for a 12-year journey to Neptune, Stone
said. That was considered too expensive, so JPL offered a compromise
plan that would only guarantee reaching Saturn. Quietly included,
however, was an attempt to use the gravitational pull of Jupiter and
Saturn – creating a “slingshot” effect that could propel the
craft much further.

“It was done
stage-by-stage,” Stone said. There were close calls, but the crafts
kept sending back photos and data on the planets. “We just had a
flood of new information, which was really a joy, (showing) how
diverse the bodies are in the solar system.”

His favorite finding
involved one of Jupiter's moons, about the size of ours: “Before
Voyager, the only known active volcanoes in the solar system were
here on Earth,” Stone said. Then the Voyager discovered “10 times
the volcanic activity of Earth, in this little moon. That ... really
told us our (Earth-centric) view of the solar system was just too
limited.”

The unlimited
approach is to keep looking for signs of life. There are proposals,
Porco said, involving two moons. One, at Jupiter, “has a
sub-surface ocean, salty ocean, habitable zone. (It) could be a
place where life has gotten started.” The other, at Saturn, is also
sub-surface. “It's laced with organic compounds. There's possible
evidence of hypothermal activity on its seafloor, just like on
Earth.”

And what if there is
life, somewhere beyond the solar system? Both Voyagers carry a
“golden record,” complete with a stylus and instructions for
playing it. “It will last a billion years,” Timothy Ferris said.

Ferris, then a young
Rolling Stone editor, was given the last-minute task of producing it.
He included classical (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Stravinsky) and
regional sounds (Mahi, Mbuti, Mariachi, more). He added cuts from
jazz (Louis Armstrong), blues (Blind Willie Johnson) and rock (Chuck
Berry).

Why not Bob Dylan,
instead? Dylan's strength is lyrics, Ferris said. “I don't think
the lyrical brilliance is as likely to reach an extraterrestrial.”

We may never know,
but the Voyagers – clearly our employees-of-the-millennia – keep
trying, taking that golden record deeper into space.

-- “The Farthest:
Voyager in Space,” 9-11 p.m. Wednesday (Aug. 23), PBS; repeats 10
p.m. Sept. 13

-- Marks the 40th
anniversary of the twin spacecraft. Voyager 2 went first (despite the
name), launched Aug. 20, 1977; Voyager 1 went on Sept. 5, but passed
it up, as planned.

-- They've gone more
than 10 billion and 12 billion miles, adding almost a billion each
three years.