The farthest

Review by Alden Mathieu

The Voyager program, developed to take advantage of a rare 176-year cyclical alignment of the four outer planets, was approved by Nixon not long before his resignation. Voyager 1 and 2 launched the summer my mother graduated from high school and the year my parents married respectively. Voyager 1 and 2 swung around Jupiter, photographing the Great Red Spot and discovering active volcanoes on Io, new moons and unexpected rings. When I was barely a year old, Voyager 1 flew by Uranus, with a gravity assist from its tour of Saturn. I was in kindergarten when Voyager 1 turned back towards the retreating Sun and shot a composite photo of the Solar System, the Earth a fraction of a pixel from six billion kilometers away.  The month my father died, Voyager 1 passed through the heliopause into interstellar space, travelling at 17,000 kilometers a second.  Millions of millennia from now, when our star has exploded into a red giant and incinerated Earth, Voyager 1 will be one of the few artefacts attesting to our existence, more than 425,000 light years from the atoms which used to be our planet, a mass of dead instruments and ad-hoc aluminum foil sheeting about the size and mass of a compact car, transporting a golden record of greetings from a species that will have been dead for billions of years.

It's hard to grapple with time spans like this. The Farthest straddles the conceptual divide between the human and the cosmic scales by grounding the story of Voyager 1 and 2, space probes designed to examine the comparatively unknown outer planets, in the culture and aesthetics of the age that produced them.  

The Farthest is most satisfying when it embraces the optimism and energy of the last great space age that produced Voyager. Linda Morabito shares the excitement of spotting an active volcano on Io in a way that viscerally conveys the suspense and shock of a discovery now almost 40 years old. The sleepless weeks of fly-bys, with a new image and new data every 48 seconds; the drama of rushing to finish in time for the narrow launch window, including the famous golden record, a time capsule of Earth’s civilization recorded and composed in just 5 weeks; Beethoven's Fifth booming over 1970s JPL stock footage of white-jumpsuited engineers constructing the probe. A classic soundtrack floats over atmospheric galaxy shots and psychedelic color-blocked arrays of planetary photographs.

The Farthest is a love letter to Earth as much as it is a celebration of exploration or scientific inquiry. Voyager's golden record receives a large amount of description, but as always, a message to other sentient life is more importantly a message to ourselves. Carl Sagan, who helped compose the golden record and who petitioned for years at NASA to have the composite photo of the Solar System taken, was a canny romantic who probably most understood the implications of the Voyager program. Reynolds quotes him: "We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived [...] in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam."  As Voyager 1 and 2 transition between active scientific missions to acting as a veritable “message in a bottle", The Farthest makes it clear that the message is always more important to the author than the receiver, if in this case, there is any.