The night sky is a long way from Tipperary

As a child, Emer Reynolds used to stare into the night sky at her uncle’s farm in Mullinahone. It sparked an interest which has culminated in a widely-praised documentary on the journey of the Voyager spacecraft, writes Esther McCarthy.

As a little girl, Emer Reynolds would lie on the grass of her uncle’s Tipperary farm, gaze up at the night sky in wonderment, catch her breath, and hold on to the earth.

By then already a self-confessed “space freak”, the eight-year-old knew the speed at which Earth was travelling, and the fact that it was a mere speck in the universe.

It was overwhelming, and humbling, says the Dubliner.

“I really fell in love with space on that farm, which is just outside Mullinahone, in Co Tipperary, my uncle’s farm. It had really dark skies overhead, the sort of skies you’re so excited to see these days.

It’s so rare to find such a dark sky. In a sky like that, you can actually see the smear of the Milky Way. In most skies, you can’t.

“I was just devoted to space and science. Since I was a very small child, I wanted to be an astronaut. I used to lie on the grass at night. You know, one of those really kinetic, visceral memories? I remember, I used to clutch onto the grass with my fingers.

“I knew all the statistics — how fast the Earth was tumbling, how fast we were flying around the sun. I used to just imagine myself, that if I didn’t hold on I would fall off this planet, it was hurtling through space so fast. It was such a poetic idea, to me, that we were on a tiny planet, in the middle of a vast, empty cosmos.”

She carried a pink notebook in which she’d write the latest facts she’d learned about the universe. The roots were formed even before she was blown away by the first movie she saw at the cinema, Star Wars.

Those childhood dreams of being an astronaut have been put on hold, and NASA’s loss is cinema’s gain. Already a well-known and respected film editor, Reynolds has directed her second documentary about her great love, and it’s a joy to watch on the big screen.

The Farthest centres on Voyager, two spacecraft sent from Earth in the 1970s in a project as audacious as it was exciting. Carrying a ‘golden record’ of sounds and music, it was sent as a message-in-a-bottle to outer space.

To this day, the craft continue to perform like champs, sending information back to Earth. Besides featuring colourful and charming characters, The Farthest’s great victory is that it’s told with the childlike love and wonder of that girl on the farm in Tipperary.

“It tells the story of the Voyager spacecraft, and its curious little cargo, the Golden Record, which is attached to the side of the craft,” says Reynolds of the documentary.

“Both of them have been hurtling through Earth’s solar system since 1977, initially on a mission to find out about our solar system, and the four outer planets, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and Uranus.

 

“Then, subsequently, Voyager 1 became the first human-made object to ever leave our solar system, and enter interstellar space.

“These little craft will circle the galaxy, probably for all time, and could well, at some point, be the only remaining evidence that we were ever here, when the Earth is long gone.

“Voyager will still be out there with memories of life on Earth, and someone, at a far-distant moment in space and time, might at least know we were once here.”

Voyager does so without any ongoing power from Earth, she adds.

“Because space is a vacuum and there’s no wind or anything out there, no atmosphere to slow the spacecraft down, once the spacecraft has actually been hurled off the Earth, all of its momentum is already inherent.

“It doesn’t need rockets to power it, to go further. It needs a massive amount of energy to get it outside of Earth’s gravity; that’s why they have ‘ginormous’ big cylinders, with all this fuel.

"In fact, Voyager got slightly faster, because of the route it took out of our solar system. It did a slingshot around Jupiter, then a slingshot around Saturn. All of that journey allowed it to gather speed; it’s really like skimming a stone.”

Travelling at ten miles per second, the craft bomb around space 12bn miles away, and Reynolds’ highly entertaining documentary features detailed interviews with many of the people behind its premise and development, as well as stunning photography and visual effects.

Reynolds, whose editing credits include My Name is Emily and One Million Dubliners, had already cut her directorial teeth on the excellent Here Was Cuba, about the Cuban missile crisis.

But Voyager’s story had not been told, and for a woman so taken with science that she studied physics and pure maths in Trinity, it represented a great opportunity.

The Golden Record, including the music of Chuck Berry, Bach, and many others, as well as the sounds of Earth, really captured the public imagination, Reynolds says.

“It was conceived as a way that we might communicate about life on Earth, about our home planet, to extra-terrestrial civilisation, should Voyager ever encounter any. They talk of it as being a kind of message-in-a-bottle.

“A small team was put together, led by the famous astronomer, Carl Sagan, who went on to write the movie, Contact, and Frank Drake, who’s the famous astronomer who founded the institute which is the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.

“Various other characters, like Tim Ferris, the then-editor of Rolling Stone, appear in the film. One of the scientists in the film talks about it not feeling it’s been put together by a committee. It’s too quirky for that.

“They burned it into a gold disc and they only had enough room for 90 minutes of music and the rest of the space is taken up with greetings from Earth in 55 different languages, photographs of Earth, and a beautiful sound essay, featuring the sounds of Earth. It’s a beautiful, poignant and poetic part of the record.

“It’s a lovely mind experiment, isn’t it? What would you put on it? You wouldn’t put on the ringing of a mobile phone, but you probably would put on your little baby’s cry,” Emer says.

Thanks to the success of The Farthest, Reynolds is already developing other films, but plans to continue working as an editor.

“I love editing and, in an ideal world, I’ll be able to do both. It’s eminently possible, because it takes so long to develop a feature to direct. There’s a number of directors I have close collaborative relationships with and I’d love to be able to still plough that field.”

The Farthest opens at cinemas nationwide tomorrow, Friday, including at the Gate Cinema, Cork.


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