The first spacecraft to visit the outer planets launched 40 years ago
Courtesy of Tangled Bank Studios
A species gets only one chance to explore its solar system for the first time.
For humans, that chance began 40 years ago this month, when the twin Voyager spacecraft embarked on their “grand tour” of the solar system. A new PBS documentary airing on August 23, The Farthest: Voyager in Space, chronicles their journey to send home the first close-ups of the giant planets and to bring a message about life on Earth to the stars.
Voyagers’ launch dates took advantage of a rare planetary alignment. In 1977, the giant planets — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune — lined up in such a way that a spacecraft could swing past all four in less than 15 years, stealing some gravitational oomph from each world as it went.
That lucky alignment happens only once every 176 years. When NASA’s administrator went to President Richard Nixon to ask for funding for Voyager, he allegedly said: &ldquo