Voyager 2 was launched on August 20, 1977. Sixteen days later, Voyager 1 was launched on September 5, 1977.

Why was the first spacecraft numbered #2 and the second spacecraft numbered #1?

Clarification: One would expect that the first spacecraft to be manufactured would be the first ready for launch. Since that didn't happen, there is more to the story, and that is what this question is about.

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    $\begingroup$ That still doesn't explain why #2 was launched first. $\endgroup$
    – DrSheldon
    Commented Nov 12, 2018 at 11:12
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    $\begingroup$ Voyager 1 was started later but used a faster trajectory. From wikipedia "On November 7, 2012, Voyager 2 reached 100 AU from the sun, making it the third human-made object to reach 100 AU. Voyager 1 was 122 AU from the Sun" , "In 2013 Voyager 1 was escaping the solar system at a speed of about 3.6 AU per year, while Voyager 2 was only escaping at 3.3 AU per year.[41] (Each year Voyager 1 increases its lead over Voyager 2) ". $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Commented Nov 12, 2018 at 12:11
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    $\begingroup$ There is a very good documentary on the Voyager spacecraft called "The Farthest" available on Netflix. I watched it a few nights ago and the numbering was explained there as well. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Nov 12, 2018 at 16:57
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    $\begingroup$ While I don't know for sure, I would think that something like the Voyagers would be built in parallel, rather than one after the other. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Nov 12, 2018 at 17:57
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    $\begingroup$ On MER we numbered the builds, but used letters for the launches. So MER-1 was built before MER-2. MER-A would both launch and arrive first, and MER-B would launch and arrive second. We weren't sure which hardware would launch first, and in fact due to how system testing on the two units was laid out, MER-2 became MER-A (Spirit), and MER-1 became MER-B (Opportunity). $\endgroup$
    – Mark Adler
    Commented Nov 12, 2018 at 21:18

2 Answers 2


Voyager 1 was the first to reach Jupiter and the first to reach Saturn, as it was launched on a "shorter and faster trajectory" (Wikipedia, NASA). So the numbering was chosen to reflect the order of the main part of the mission, not the launches.

I have not found any sources explicitly stating that as the reason, but the arrivals at Jupiter and Saturn received much more publicity than the launches, and at the time it certainly seemed natural that the first Voyager mission to reach Jupiter would be Voyager 1.

In Exploring Space by William E. Burrows, there is the following footnote:

Three weeks before the scheduled launch, the spacecraft that was originally to be Voyager 2 developed mechanical problems. As a result, a "spare" that actually carried the designation Voyager 3 became Voyager 2. Once repaired, the original Voyager 2 was made Voyager 1. The original voyager 1 was shipped back to JPL.

This at least shows that the naming had nothing to do when when each piece of hardware became available, since they renamed the hardware when they had to swap it out.

A reference to a NASA memo or even contemporaneous media coverage specifically supporting this reason would be a better answer, but this is what I have.

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    $\begingroup$ It's not from a contemporaneous source, but here's something from NASA's Voyager mission page stating this is the reason: nasa.gov/mission_pages/voyager/multimedia/pia01480.html $\endgroup$
    – Elezar
    Commented Nov 12, 2018 at 17:36
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    $\begingroup$ This is correct. This is also covered in The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission by Jim Bell. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 12, 2018 at 17:37
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    $\begingroup$ The original Voyager 1 remains on display today in the von Karman auditorium at JPL. $\endgroup$
    – Mark Adler
    Commented Nov 12, 2018 at 21:15
  • $\begingroup$ Regardless of this clarification being a official statement or not. I found this is very convincing. $\endgroup$
    – not_Prince
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 8:17

The Voyager mission status bulletin 1 (1977-08-09, 11 days before launch of Voyager 2) say this:

Failures in the Attitude and Articulation Control Subsystem (AACS) and Flight Data Subsystem (FDS) on the VGR77-2 spacecraft planned to be launched August 20 have resulted in a decision to interchange the first two flight spacecraft.

First launch is still scheduled for August 20, the first day of the 30-day launch window. The VGR77-3 spacecraft will now take the first launch date. Switching of the two spacecraft can be accomplished with minimum risk to the targeted launch date since the VGR77-3 schedule has always been predicated on the capability to support the August 20 date.

All testing and checkout of the VGR77-3 spacecraft continues at the Eastern Test Range (ETR), Cape Canaveral, Florida, with the pre-countdown test scheduled for August 8. Encapsulation in the spacecraft shroud is scheduled for August 9, with mating to the TC-7 Titan/Centaur launch vehicle at launch pad 41 planned for August 11.

The failed AACS and FDS have been returned to the Jet Propulstion laboratory in Pasadena, California. The spare AACS and an repaired FDS may be available for reinstallation in VGR77-2 at ETR by August 10, which could result in an encapsulation date of August 17

So what it looks like is that they built a total of three spacecraft -- one engineering model and two flight models. This is very common with space hardware -- build an engineering model first, run it through all the same tests that the flight model will have to endure, and basically use it as a pathfinder. Often the engineering model and flight model are of similar quality, and sometimes something happens to the flight model and they have to fly the engineering model. We don't generally build engineering models of the entire spacecraft any more, but it is still common to build engineering models of the more important parts (such as science instruments).

The terminology might be confusing -- why do we call the real thing which will be flung into space, a flight "model"? I'm not sure why, I just know that's the way it is. Just because it's a model, doesn't mean it's built of wood and plastic. It is the real thing.

From bulletin 3:

Three spacecraft were built for the Voyager mission. One, VGR77-1, was designated the Proof Test Model (PTM) and subjected to extensive testing in simulated deep space conditions to test the spacecraft design, construction, and durability. VGR77-2 and -3 were designated flight spacecraft and subjected to less arduous testing to save them for the real deep space conditions.

I think the proof test model VGR77-1 never left JPL and might now be the model in the Von Karman auditorium. The two flight models were then called VGR77-2 and VGR77-3 while on the ground.

Once in flight, it was always the plan to call the first spacecraft to reach Jupiter "Voyager 1". In order to get the encounter they wanted for it, they had to put it on a trajectory that launched second, but arrived first. The mission team had a choice of confusing the public for a short time near the launch by launching out of order, or confusing the public for the duration of a 5+ year mission by calling the first spacecraft to arrive at Jupiter and Saturn "Voyager 2". They chose the first option.

Due to the late switch, VGR77-3 got the first launch opportunity and became Voyager 2 in flight, while VGR77-2 got the second opportunity and became Voyager 1 in flight.

All of the Voyager mission status briefings have been archived by the Planetary Society.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Space! Nice find and first post! $\endgroup$
    – DrSheldon
    Commented May 22, 2019 at 16:39
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    $\begingroup$ « why do we call the real thing which will be flung into space, a flight "model"» — presumably an analogy to “models” of cars - we know what a Ford Model T is, and it’s certainly not a wood-and-plastic prototype. $\endgroup$ Commented May 2, 2023 at 13:54

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