An elderly man walks into the frame and sits on a park bench, a ritual repeated tens of millions of times every much day pretty everywhere in the world.
This little old man with a Spanish accent isn’t talking about retirement, winding down his days or anything like that. He’s got purpose, a lifetime of work behind him and years — as many as he has left — to carry on.
After all, Enrique Medina says. “You don’t want to let down Voyager.”
Two matching NASA spacecraft were launched in 1977, in the middle of America’s “national malaise.” A culture famed for inventing disposability and “planned obsolescence” produced engineering that would dazzle science fiction fans and impress even Medieval cathedral builders or Victorian engineers with its durability and ultility.
And now, 45 years-and-counting on, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are still out there, traveling well beyond our solar system, adding to the breadth of human knowledge with instruments and tech designed before Ford Pintos were pulled off the road.
“It’s Quieter in the Twilight” is an elegaic documentary about the aging, shrinking Jet Propulsion Laboratory team that keeps track of, in touch with and maintains and monitors what these two intrepid spaceships discover.
As we meet the dozen scientists and engineers still on the job (this was filmed from 2019-2021/22), they get emotional over the job, the spacecraft and how they and their two starships are nearing the end of the the line.
“Age casts a shadow over everything we do,” one engineer notes.
Billy Miossi’s film speaks to most everyone on that shrinking team, some of whom have been around since launch, all of whom sing the praises of the “forgotten hero” of America’s space program, how it was envisioned, the optimism and excitement that greeted this first effort to hit a grand slam — visiting Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, all in one trip. And they talk about the ongoing mission as both craft left the Solar System, passed through the heliosphere (the edge of the sun’s “solar wind”) and the project settled into “out of sight, out of mind” status, as far as NASA has been concerned.
The team wrestles with repairs to the one Deep Space Network communication dish that can reach one of the craft, in Australia, fretting over everything they can do to keep their baby alive enough to re-awaken when the dish comes back online. And they struggle with everything that could and did go wrong during COVID.
That part of “Twilight” is more technical and a tad duller than the rest.
But early on, Miossi fills the screen with images of the prep and the launch, montages of long ago headlines, reports by long dead TV news reporters and anchors waxing rhapsodic, many of them landing the Big Interview on this subject, science superstar in the making Carl Sagan.
The bulk of the film is about the work today, an aging workforce of the usual NASA “pocket protector and glasses” white guy nerds, but also immigrants from South America and Korea, a Black engineer who grew up during segregation and had to carve a new path just to get into science.
In that regard, “It’s Quieter in the Twilight” is both an elegy and a film infused with a dewy-eyed optimism. We’re looking back and remembering an era where science and achievement and diversity were lauded and lionized, when national pride was based on swinging for the fences, and we’re looking back from an age when every value epitomized by Voyager and the America back then is under assault.
Maybe, this film suggests, it is “Twilight.” But if we remember what we did then, a new dawn will be just as bright.
Rating: unrated, G-worthy
Cast: Suzanne Dodd, Chris Jones, Jefferson Hall, Sun Matsumoto, Enrique Medina, Todd Barder, Lu Yang, Fernando Peralta, Andrea Angrum and Ed Stone
Credits: Directed by Billy Miossi. A Gravitas Ventures release.
Running time: 1:24