December 28, 1981 12:00 PM

Somewhere out in the void, an unthinkable billion miles away, the space probe Voyager 2 is silently coasting toward the edge of the solar system. It has already completed a historic assignment. This summer it transmitted back to earth miraculously clear and lovely photographs of Saturn. No one looked at the pictures more rapturously than Bradford A. Smith. As head of the project’s photo-imagery team since 1972, the 50-year-old Smith interpreted the pictures, announced one stunning discovery after another, and acted as the nation’s tour guide on an awesome journey.

Now, however, the Voyager project is in danger of becoming space exploration’s homeless Flying Dutchman. Budget cuts planned by the Reagan Administration threaten to all but end NASA’s space exploration program, and Voyager 2’s human masters back on earth are frustrated and angry. “I find it incredible when you consider that these programs cost only $300 million a year,” Smith says. “A program that has done so much for science and the country’s reputation is just going down the tubes.”

Smith headed a team of 26 scientists that worked on Voyager 1 and 2 imaging—the computer-enhanced reproduction of signals sent by spacecraft. Voyager found “a very bizarre world that goes beyond the imagination of science fiction writers,” says Smith. The discoveries—such as the volcanoes on lo, one of Jupiter’s moons, and the unexpected complexity of Saturn’s rings—will be studied for decades.

A divorced father of three children, Smith is professor of planetary sciences at the University of Arizona. He will have more time for teaching if the budget cuts go through, trimming NASA’s planetary exploration funding from $200 to $60 million. As a junior high student, he lived within biking distance of Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge and eventually studied astronomy at New Mexico State University. He was observatory director there when spacecraft began visiting the planets in the early ’60s, and joined NASA’s first evaluation team in 1965.

His next project comes in 1985, when the space shuttle is scheduled to place a 12-ton telescope 400 miles above the earth’s atmosphere. Smith promises “it will produce an absolutely enormous breakthrough in astronomy—the largest single step since Galileo peeked through his optic tube.” Its mission: to determine how far the universe extends, and whether it will expand forever or eventually collapse. In jeopardy, however, is the long-planned “Galileo” mission, which is a shuttle-launched probe into Jupiter’s atmosphere, plus two other projects: a radar survey of Venus and missions to study the 1986 visit of Halley’s comet.

If economics do indeed halt further interplanetary reconnaissance, the Voyager missions would remain a grand finale. The twin 1,800-pound robots were launched 16 days apart, the first on Aug. 20, 1977. Voyager 1 is now adrift in deep space. Voyager 2 is still on course for encounters with Uranus in 1986 and Neptune in 1989. Astronomer Carl Sagan said to PEOPLE about Smith: “When the work of the other people you write about in this issue is forgotten, moldering in some almanac, the discoveries of Voyager will be significant and remembered.”

You May Like