In the documentary “It’s Quieter in the Twilight” director Billy Miossi includes information on what was once called “Man’s Greatest Modern Adventure.” What was that adventure?
The Voyager Mission, which meant the launching of not one, but two space craft to tour the outer planets, specifically Jupiter, Uranus, Saturn and Neptune—14 billion miles from Earth (farther than any other mission ever). In the late sixties, it was discovered that the gravity of a planet might enable a spacecraft to go forward in space to more distant planets. It was also noted that a line-up of the planets that would be beneficial for such an experiment was to occur in 1977; this configuration would not occur again for another 177 years.
Therefore, the Voyager project began in 1977 and was called “a fantastic exploratory achievement.” Initially, 1200 engineers worked on the project. It was Big News as the reliable Voyager spacecraft got great pictures of far-away planets in our solar system.Today, coming up on 50 years in orbit in 2027, only a dozen hardy souls remain on the Voyager project. This is a film about them, their dedication to the mission, and the end of what was once dubbed “Man’s Greatest Modern Adventure.”
This 90 minute film is just as much the story of the devoted rocket scientists who have remained at their posts through thick and thin. The space crafts have now gone out so far that they are beyond the solar system and, instead, sending back data that allows us to learn how solar winds affect other planets. As Ed Stone, Professor of Physics at California Technology Institute, an original member of the team, said, “It (Voyager) changed our view of the solar system.” Some members of the original team, speaking on camera, are 87. Others are 70. They are largely unsung heroes of our by-gone race to space.
In addition to phenomenal pictures of the rings of Saturn and other facets of the farthest planets, transmitted continuously for 42 years, we learn that active volcanoes were found on Jupiter. The scientific expertise comprised of the engineers behind the project is invaluable. As current Project Leader Suzanne Dodd put it, “They have what you can’t get from paper.”
We learn that there are only 3 tracking stations for Voyager (Madrid, Barstow, and Canberra) and only the one in Canberra, Australia, would be able to see Voyager, because it is only visible in the southern hemisphere. Complicating just normal operational issues is the fact that the Canberra observatory was due to shut down for nearly a year and the Voyager team had to plan ahead for the months that they would have no way to communicate with the spacecrafts. Also, decomposing hydrogen thrusters will make it impossible to control the spacecraft over time.
The spacecraft uses 4 watts of power a year and there are only 7.5 watts left. The only way to potentially keep the spacecraft flying and sending back data, say the engineers, is to turn off some of the heaters, throwing the heating task to those that use less power so that the salvaged power can help the aging spacecraft (perhaps) limp to a 50-year finish line. The temperature in space then becomes -76 Fahrenheit.
Another problem is the amount of time it takes to both send and receive messages or commands from the spacecraft. Voyager #1 takes 20 hours for the signal to reach Earth. Voyager #2 takes 17, so fixing anything quickly is not possible. There is even a momentary hiccup in the transmission of data during the documentary that requires 35 hours to fix.
One by one the backgrounds of some of the engineers trying to reprogram the 42-year-old spacecaraft are sketched: Sun Kang Matsomato of South Korea; Jefferson Hall of Mississippi; Enrique Medina (age 70) from Mexico; Fernando Peralto from Bogota, Columbia; Suzanne Dodd, who left the project in 2010 but returned as manager; Lee Yang. We learn of the untimely death of Enrique’s wife from a brain aneurysm at the beginning of the pandemic. We see Sun Kang’s young sons growing up, after making models of Voyager as small children.
The 70-year-old says, emotionally, that he enjoys continuing to work on the Voyager project, because he feels needed. “I always loved Voyager. It makes me feel that I am needed some place. I have the expertise to take Voyager through 2025—and maybe longer.”
Indeed, others, including South Korean native Sun Kang Matsomato, say, “When I see that Voyager does not need me, I will leave.”
Perhaps the most emotional bit of film is the statement from Chris Jones, who worked on Voyager from 1973 to 1981 and then returned to the task. He retired in 2021, but breaks down and tears up, emotionally, talking about the project, saying, “There was a time when I was a kid, and I had the chance to do something for the very first time. As it gets to the end, it’s going to be special, because it’s the very last time.”
As another engineer says, “There are probably only 8 more commands to execute on Voyager. The end is coming.”
Frank Lawlor has provided an excellent soundtrack and the cinematography (Willie Leatherwood and Pete Mignin) and editing (Matt Reynolds) are top-notch in this SXSW offering.
The film opens in Los Angeles on Friday, May 19th at Laemmle Noho #7 and on demand everywhere that day, including ITunes and Apple TV. A premiere screening and Q&A will be held at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California on Monday, May 15th at 7 p.m. For all you space geeks out there, this is one you’ll like.