The Voyager -- the never-ending journey to worlds beyond


Think of them as the Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripkin of outer space, working tirelessly for us. For 40 years, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have kept sending reports about our solar syste and beyond. Now they'll be the subject of a fascinating PBS documentary Wednesday (Aug. 23), Here's the story I sent to papers: 

By Mike Hughes

Let's ignore any
complaints about underachieving government projects.

Instead, consider
the Voyager spacecrafts: Far surpassing their assignments, they've
continued for 40 years, going beyond our solar system. That outstrips
some (but not all) of the humans involved:

-- Suzanne Dodd, the
current project manager? When the Voyager was launched, she was a
teen-ager in Gig Harbor, Wash. “I was more concerned with getting
my driver's license,” she recalled.

-- And Ed Stone, the
chief scientist? He's actually had that job from the start. “You
might say (I could) make a career out of this,” he joked.

Now the epic story
is being told in a “Nova” documentary that includes many of the
key people.

Stone, the former
Jet Propulsion Lab chief, is 81, savoring decades of findings. “None
of us knew that a spacecraft could last 40 years,” he said. “When
Voyager was launched, the Space Age itself was 20 years old. So there
was just no basis to know that things could last this long.”

It won't last
forever. Stone estimates that Voyager 2 will quit transmitting data
in a couple years, but Voyager 1 may continue for another decade.
That's far from certain, he said. “Voyager has taught us that what
we think we know, we probably don't fully know.”

This was a project
that had to be rushed, to meet a planetary alignment that happens
once every 176 years. Technology was limited -- most cellphones have
more computing power than the Voyager, Stone said – and
improvisation was needed. Also: “There was a little bit of
subversiveness in there,” said Carolyn Porco, a Voyager imaging
scientist.

The first idea was
to design four spacecraft for a 12-year journey to Neptune, Stone
said. That was considered too expensive, so JPL offered a compromise
plan that would only guarantee reaching Saturn. Quietly included,
however, was an attempt to use the gravitational pull of Jupiter and
Saturn – creating a “slingshot” effect that could propel the
craft much further.

“It was done
stage-by-stage,” Stone said. There were close calls, but the crafts
kept sending back photos and data on the planets. “We just had a
flood of new information, which was really a joy, (showing) how
diverse the bodies are in the solar system.”

His favorite finding
involved one of Jupiter's moons, about the size of ours: “Before
Voyager, the only known active volcanoes in the solar system were
here on Earth,” Stone said. Then the Voyager discovered “10 times
the volcanic activity of Earth, in this little moon. That ... really
told us our (Earth-centric) view of the solar system was just too
limited.”

The unlimited
approach is to keep looking for signs of life. There are proposals,
Porco said, involving two moons. One, at Jupiter, “has a
sub-surface ocean, salty ocean, habitable zone. (It) could be a
place where life has gotten started.” The other, at Saturn, is also
sub-surface. “It's laced with organic compounds. There's possible
evidence of hypothermal activity on its seafloor, just like on
Earth.”

And what if there is
life, somewhere beyond the solar system? Both Voyagers carry a
“golden record,” complete with a stylus and instructions for
playing it. “It will last a billion years,” Timothy Ferris said.

Ferris, then a young
Rolling Stone editor, was given the last-minute task of producing it.
He included classical (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Stravinsky) and
regional sounds (Mahi, Mbuti, Mariachi, more). He added cuts from
jazz (Louis Armstrong), blues (Blind Willie Johnson) and rock (Chuck
Berry).

Why not Bob Dylan,
instead? Dylan's strength is lyrics, Ferris said. “I don't think
the lyrical brilliance is as likely to reach an extraterrestrial.”

We may never know,
but the Voyagers – clearly our employees-of-the-millennia – keep
trying, taking that golden record deeper into space.

-- “The Farthest:
Voyager in Space,” 9-11 p.m. Wednesday (Aug. 23), PBS; repeats 10
p.m. Sept. 13

-- Marks the 40th
anniversary of the twin spacecraft. Voyager 2 went first (despite the
name), launched Aug. 20, 1977; Voyager 1 went on Sept. 5, but passed
it up, as planned.

-- They've gone more
than 10 billion and 12 billion miles, adding almost a billion each
three years.

 

Excited about the eclipse? So are scientists and TV people


Sure, there are times when science-talk causes me to blank out. But if the subject involves turning day into night, blackening our world ... OK, you've got my interest,. Now Americans are ready for an eclipse Monday, and TV is ready to cover it. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

As Americans
prepared for Monday's event, we heard stories of past solar eclipses.

People have
screamed, cheered, wailed; they've been awed or gaga or breathless.

That's pretty silly,
right? Still ... “If you were going to have a natural event ... to
get breathless about, it might be this one,” said James Bullock,
who chairs physics and astronomy at the University of California,
Irvine.

He's one of the
scientists who will be featured in TV coverage before, during and
after the event. All seem to agree that this is a big deal. “It's
the most amazing natural phenomenon that happens from the surface of
the Earth,” said Angela Des Jardins, head of the Montana Space
Grant Consortium.

And it's rare: The
U.S. hasn't had a total eclipse since 1979; it hasn't had one span
both coasts since 1918. Here it is, reaching Oregon at 1:15 p.m. ET
Monday and leaving South Carolina at 2:48. It will cut through Idaho,
Wyoming, Nebraska, Missouri and Tennessee, while touching the edges
of others.

That strip is only
70 miles wide, Des Jardins said, but the rest of us won't be
abandoned. “The entire U.S. will experience at least a partial
eclipse ... which is going to be absolutely amazing as well.”

But for TV people
and scientists, that total-eclipse swath will be the key.

On one end, the
Science Channel will have a base in Madras, Oregon. “That will be
the first place that the eclipse will be visible in the United States
(and it usually has) about 95 to 98 percent chance of a clear day,”
said Marc Etkind, the channel's general manager.

At the other end,
Science will be based in South Carolina, where Mike Massimino – the
forner astronaut who's done six “Big Bang Theory” episodes --
will host. That night, there will be specials on PBS and Science,
gathering material from the day. “We will be collecting all of the
great images and getting the results of some of the science
experiments,” Etkind said.

Some of those
involve the effects on the Earth; others involve astronomy, said Amir
Caspi, head of a NASA project. “When the solar disk is blocked out,
you can actually see the solar corona.”

Caspi – featured
in both the PBS and Science projects – is trying to determine why
that outer corona is so much hotter than the sun itself. He's also
wondering why the corona has “well-formed loops and arcades and
fans .... They look like they were freshly combed and not snarled and
matted.”

All research must be
quick. “At any one location, ... totality lasts about two minutes,”
Des Jardins said.

One solution is to
spread out the observations. She has 55 student teams from 30 states;
Caspi will have two jet planes, combining to catch about seven
minutes of eclipse.

Most of us will
settle for a couple minutes of not-quite-totality. We can watch with
modest caution, Des Jardins said. “Watching the eclipse in general
is not dangerous. The thing that's dangerous is looking at the sun
with no protection, and that's true any time.”

Some of those
watchers might be transformed, Bullock said. “It's spectacular ....
A whole generation of kids (could) be inspired by this physical,
astronomical event that is not ... in a video game.”

 

-- Preview: “Great
American Eclipse,” 9:02 p.m. ET Sunday, Science; reruns at 12:08
a.m. ET and at 11 a.m. ET Monday.

-- During the
eclipse: ABC, CBS and NBC all plan live coverage from 1-3 p.m. ET.
The Science Channel has live coverage from noon to 4. News and
weather channels are expected to be involved, especially during the
stretch (1:15 to 2:48 p.m. ET), when parts of the U.S. are in total
eclipse.

-- That night:
“Nova” has prepared an hour for 9 p.m. Monday, viewing the
science of the eclipse; it will edit that throughout the day,
inserting new footage; Science will have a new hour at 9:02 p.m. ET
Monday, rerunning at 12:20 a.m. The Science special will rerun at 8
and 11:06 p.m. ET Tuesday; the “Nova” one will rerun at 8 p.m.
Wednesday.

"Get Shorty" gives us B-moviemaker, D-level mobster, A-plus author


"Get Shorty" -- which debuts debuts Sunday (Aug. 13) -- gives us the best of world, with quirky characters in odd settings. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

LOS ANGELES –
Hollywood keeps trying to turn Elmore Leonard's stories into movies.

It has failed often,
then redeemed itself with “Juastified” and – twice -- “Get
Shorty.”

The first “Shorty”
was a 1995 John Travolta movie. The new cable series is ... well,
semi-similar.

“We've taken the
premise of tough guys, thugs, who fall in love and come to
Hollywood,” said writer Davey Holmes.

And he's borrowed
the basic notion of Leonard, the late novelist: “The juxtaposition
of human frailty with tough guys or with the criminal world is very
funny.”

Miles Daly (Chris
O'Shea) is a thug in Pahrump, Nev. Yes, that's a real name -- “it
kind of sounds like the sound your (butt) makes when you get thrown
out of Las Vegas,” O'Shea said.

It's a place Holmes
knows only from seeing photos on the Internet. It “looked like the
end of the world there,” he said. “So it seemed like a great
place to set our criminal gang.”

Desperate to
re-connect with his wife and kids, Miles finds a blood-soaked script
and takes it to a producer of B movies.

From Roger Corman
and American International to the fictional guy in “Argo.”
B-moviemaking has always been a fun turf. “There's something kind
of kitschy and great about it,” Holmes said.

This B-filmmaker is
a fairly solemn chap, grasping for remnants of pride. It's another
strong role for Ray Romano, who's had several of them lately.

“After ('Everybody
Loves Raymond'), I didn't want to do a sitcom again,” Romano said.
“(But) it's very hard to get people to forget the character they've
seen for nine years.”

Now they might. From
HBO's “Vinyl” to the much-loved indie film “The Big Sick,”
Romano has tackled complex characters. He's an A-level (almost)
actor, playing a B-movie producer.

“Get Shorty,” 10
p.m. Sundays, cable channel Epix; starts Aug. 13

Medical miracles keep happening in Building 10


LOS ANGELES --
Deidra Williams recalls decades of crises. She had “pretty much
from birth lived in the hospital system.”

Then she found a
sort of superhospital, the subject of a new cable series. Simply
called “Building 10” of the National Institutes of Health, it
seeks new approaches.

“The NIH is the
largest funder of medical research in the world,” said John
Hoffman, the Discovery Channel's chief of documentaries and specials.

It seeks huge
challenges; Williams fit that. “The only treatment for
sickle-cell,” she said, “was probably to have pain medication
.... When we found NIH, it was my last end.”

Dr. John Tisdale, at
the NIH, agrees. “There (was) only one FDA-approved drug for sickle
cell disease at the time,” he said, and that was “really only for
pain medication. The average life span is about 42 years in this
disease; Deidra was very close to that age.”

Transplants work, he
said, but usually for kids. “Adults with sickle cell disease have
so much accumulated organ damage, they're just not eligible.”

Williams was saved
by stem cells from her sister. That could lead to bigger things,
Tisdale said. “One can envision ... getting her own cells,
modifying them in some way to fix them, and then putting them back.
(That idea) is moving quickly.”

Not all Building 20
stories have happy endings. Carla Cooper said her son had acute
lymphoblastic leukemia at 20. After five years of treatment and
remission, he joined an NIH study. “He didn't make it, but it gave
us the time with him, which was really important to us.”

These are clinical
trials that can often fail, Tisdale said. Sometimes, however, they
succeed thoroughly.

As Williams
recalled: “A patient there said, 'This place should really be
called the National Institute of Hope.”

-- “First in
Human,” Discovery Channel

-- 9-11 p.m.
Thursdays, repeating at 11, on Aug. 10, 17 and 24

Mystery-by-mail: Stephen King switches genre


The mail, it seems, is still quite important. Now it has led to a new mini-series linking two masters, Stephen King and David E. Kelley.
"Mr. Mercedes" debuts Wednesday; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

LOS ANGELES --
Imagine that a thick package arrives unexpectedly. Inside is a
not-yet-published Stephen King novel.

What do you do then?
“I instantly Xeroxed and sold every copy I could,” Jack Bender
said.

He's joking about
that. What he did was to read it and then call King; the result is
“Mr. Mercedes,” a 10-week mini-series on the DirectTV/AT&T
Audience Network.

Bender, a
producer-director, had previously linked with King on the “Under
the Dome” series. Now the author had sent his new book, involving a
retired cop's search for a serial killer.

“Stephen King was
writing in the detective genre,” Bender said, “which he never had
before .... It was a story about the monster inside of us, as opposed
to the monster outside.”

David E. Kelley,
whose scripts – from “L.A. Law” and “Ally McBeal” to “The
Practice” and “Goliath” -- often focus on lawyers, wrote the
mini-series. Some of the actors were King buffs, some were not.

Brendan Gleeson, who
plays the cop, admits he's not much of a book-reader. “The movies
are where I found my Stephen King.”

Kelly Lynch, who
co-stars, has a different view. “I've read everything,” she said.
“I love him. 'Carrie' changed my life, as a nerdy high school girl”
in suburban Minneapolis. “When (King) showed up on our set to do a
cameo, all 6-foot-4 of him, I didn't know what to say.”

She plays someone
lost in liquor and bitterness. “It was a very hard character to
shake .... I'm not a method actor, (but) she did stay with me, the
darkness and the sadness.”

Harry Treadway plays
her son, the deceptive killer. The result, he said, is a “cul-de-sac
nightmare, that sort of suburban psychopath.”

Which is not
something you'd expect to suddenly arrive in a package from Stephen
King.

-- “Mr. Mercedes,”
Audience Network, via DirecTV and AT&T

-- 8 p.m. on
Wednesdays, rerunning at 11; debuts Aug. 9