Voyager: The Story JPL Tried to Kill

When trouble with Voyager turned into trouble for me.

The news that Voyager 1 had entered interstellar space brought back vivid memories of my decades-long coverage of the Voyager. Voyager and I go way back, and not all of it is pretty. There was the good, the bad, and the ugly.

First, the good. Carl Sagan came to my NPR office back in the mid 70s. I was interviewing him about a book. He sat down to schmooze and wanted to know if I, as a radio reporter, had ever collected “natural sounds,” i.e. sounds that the earth made. I told him that, coincidentally, I was working on a series of radio reports that would feature such sounds. I had rumbling of an earthquake in Alaska and a few other noises in the collection. He asked me very quietly, as if it were a secret, whether I could send him a copy of the sounds I had collected. Why? To be included on a golden recording—an actual record like the old LPs—to be attached aboard the Voyager spacecraft scheduled to be launched in a few years. Wow, I thought. My work would be heard by aliens in space.

I said, “Sure, I’ll send you what I have.” I mailed a tape and felt very proud of my contribution.

That was the heartwarming story. Now for the bad. A few years later I spent many days at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena watching images sent back by the Voyagers as they flew past Jupiter and Saturn and their fascinating moons. I had been assigned to collect interviews and report daily for NPR about what the photos showed. They were spectacular pictures in gorgeous color. Some of the moons of the planets had odd colorations and features. One was even tinted a bit blue. For some reason, the PI person in charge of the photos, Juri van der Woude,  refused to give me color versions. Just black and white ones. He said there were not enough color ones to go around. And since I was “radio,” why did I need color photos anyhow?

I told him I needed color versions to describe the details of the photos. After all, JPL was printing them in color for a  reason—even false color—to demonstrate how scientists needed color to analyze the images. He replied he didn’t have enough to go around. I knew that wasn’t true—there were plenty of color prints. I had seen children of journalists playing with many of them, photos Juri decided I didn’t need. It’s true that NPR was a fledgling organization at the time, but I wasn’t going to be party to any snub on the whim one individual. I kicked the disagreement upstairs. I called over Frank Bristow, head of the Public Information office. Frank was a seasoned officer. With the three of us in a small circle, I explained the situation to Frank. He looked at Juri and his next few words to him—”give him color”—settled the issue.

Or so I thought.

That night, around midnight Pacific Time, Voyager was scheduled to fly past the rings of Saturn. There was some worry the rings might pose some risk to a craft travelling thousands of miles an hour past their tiny particles. Traversing the rings had never been done before. Would Voyager make it by unscathed? It would be a nail biter. Around 12:30 a.m. came the news of success. Voyager had made it. Champagne corks had been popped at JPL. Reporters in the newsroom filed their stories and most went home to sleep, except for me and a few die-hard space geeks.

I stayed because at 3 a.m. PT, I’d have to file a live report with Bob Edwards on Morning Edition. That was just few hours away. A few others stayed because they wanted to savor the moment. They had no immediate deadlines, but journalists are aware of “the moment,” and the very human feeling of being part of history makes a few hours’ sleep irrelevant. Jonathan Eberhart, of Science News, was one such reporter. More than most of us, he lived and breathed space science. He had technical print-outs, graphs, and charts given to him by his contacts inside NASA that none of us had. So when Jonathan said something, we all listened—and that night, he said something very important. Pointing to some of the images being sent back by Voyager, he said “something is wrong with Voyager.” The stars in the images, he said, should not be there. They’re the wrong ones. His charts told him that other stars should appear, which meant that the camera on the arm of the space craft was pointing in the wrong direction. Something had happened to disorient the camera. Something was wrong.

To double check, Jonathan called his contacts within JPL. It was now about 1 a.m. They verified to him what he had suspected. Now it was time to get an official verification from JPL. Frank Bristow had left the building. All the JPL PR staff had gone home for the evening, everyone except the man assigned to overnight duty: Juri van der Woude.

Eberhart asked Juri to call Frank for an official statement. It was now around 2 a.m. Yuri woke Frank, got him on the phone, and in a darkened office pointed to Jonathan and the others to pick up their phone extensions for the official word from Frank. Pointing at me, Juri said not to pick up my phone because “You can’t listen in.” Shocked, I said “What do you mean I can’t listen in? You have no right to exclude me. And besides, the others will just tell me what Frank says.” He didn’t care. And I didn’t want to get into a fight at that moment, knowing that it would be meaningless. That fight would come later.

Bristow confirmed a problem with the Voyager, issued a statement, and hung up. Eberhart told me what Frank had said, and I moved to our makeshift studio set up in a closet by my engineering colleague Leo del Aguila. It was now around 2:30 a.m. With no other daily reporters in the room—Jonathan and the others were all monthly magazine reporters with no immediate deadlines—I had a story that would scoop the entire national news staff that was tucked into bed. Morning Edition would have the unexpected problem with Voyager story before anyone.

But not if Juri van der Woude had anything to say about it. Things were about to turn ugly.

Incensed, van der Woude followed me back to our studio and yelled “You can’t have this story.” I didn’t answer. He repeated that if we continued to prepare to broadcast, he would “pull the plug.”  And now he was getting in my face. An experienced WWII pilot, van der Woude was not someone I wanted to tangle with. I didn’t see fistfight in my job description. It would take Leo’s intervention to prevent a confrontation. Seeing Leo rise from his post to stand next to me, Yuri could count—and he was now outnumbered. He backed off and left. With the microphone already opened for our interview, Bob Edwards could hear the commotion and inquired, “Is everything alright?”

“Sure Bob, nothing to worry about.” We went on to describe the success of passage by Saturn and the mysterious problem with the Voyager. We had gotten our scoop. Turns out there was no major problem with Voyager that could not be repaired with a few commands from Earth, and it went on to complete it’s mission and head out to parts unknown in interstellar space.

Leo and I still joke about it.  Over the years I’ve had many highly professional dealings with Voyager chief Ed Stone, NASA, and JPL public relations folks. So I write off that night and the whole week as an anomaly, something I can report 30+ years later.

Meet the Writer

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.