Ours may be an age of discovery like no other. This week, we look at Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery, by Stephen J. Pyne, out July 26th, 2010 from Viking Press. This fascinating work delves into the Voyager series of spacecraft missions from a unique perspective, juxtaposing it as a symbol of the third great age of exploration and drawing historical parallels and contrasts with past great expeditions of discovery. Were the Voyager spacecraft simply an extension of these past eras, or a harbinger of something without precedent? That is the tangible thread that runs throughout the book, as Mr. Pyne lets the reader decide as he guides us through the history of exploration in western civilization, letting the example of the planetary Grand Tour stand as a shining example of exploration for the sake of science. But the Voyager missions were a tale that almost wasn’t; to get off the ground, Voyager’s I and II had to fight budget constraints and political short sightedness. This was in the era of Apollo, and the mantra was often “No Buck Rodgers, no bucks.” Engineers had come to the realization in the mid-60s that a once every 176-year planetary alignment would allow for a two primary (Jupiter & Saturn) and two optional (Uranus & Neptune) tour of the outer planets. Technology was just approaching a level to make such a Grand Tour feasible; to accomplish such a feat, the Voyager spacecraft had to be space bound by 1979. Voyager follows the pair from launch in 1977, covering their historic encounters and reflecting on the history of exploration during their long hibernations, or cruise phases. The pair literally blew open the doors on planetary science, turning the fuzzy disks spied precariously in the eyepiece into real worlds. Both spacecraft returned an avalanche of images and data in addition to discovering scores of moons and charting the physical environments that each planet inhabits. In fact, Voyager II still stands as the only spacecraft to reconnaissance Uranus and Neptune to date, and along with Pioneers X, XI and New Horizons, both spacecraft are destined to escape our solar system and head for an orbit about the galactic plane.
But Voyager is also a human story as well, a tale of how engineers (and often, their families) grew up with the life spanning project and became increasingly clever in wringing every last bit of data out of Voyager I and II’s increasingly faint whispers. Both are still going strong, mapping out the outer heliosheath and heliopause at the boundaries of our solar system. Both Voyagers have seen the concept in Moore’s Law render their equipment obsolete by today’s standards; scientists and engineers must always walk a fine line between the technology they could launch today and the technology they wish they could wait for tomorrow. The Voyagers effectively weathered the waxing and waning of political and public interest in the space program; the author states appropriately that “science is long, politics short, and public interest capricious…” These are timely words, as we may well be on the precipice of another “lean decade,” much like the one that saw the Voyager spacecrafts’ departure into space.
Voyager in the clean room on planet Earth. (Credit: NASA/JPL).
Voyager also traces the indelible perception it left on the public consciousness, a grip that it still holds. As I read the book, I could trace in my mind’s eye my high school years as the Voyager duos made their dash past Jupiter and Saturn, marveling over the glossy pictures, and following through my early military career as they gave us the first glimpses of Uranus and Neptune. The silkscreen shirt I wear to every astro-event is a Voyager montage of the Saturn system, and the author even recalls every sci-fi tale, great and terrible, that has woven the Voyager mythos into our collective popular culture.
The tenuous rings of Jupiter. (Credit: NASA/JPL).
Will a heady era of exploration such as Voyager ever happen again? In time, we’ve already sent probes such as Galileo and Cassini to conduct more through surveys of Jupiter and Saturn; perhaps the century may even see the surmounting of key technical challenges that will allow us to send humans to the outer solar system. But Voyager, like Apollo, represented a time when we dared to reach for challenges that were just barely achievable. Of course, it would be pessimistic to say that we may simply consign ourselves to look back and state “in those days, there were heroes,” both human and robotic…
Saturn’s moon Dione. (Credit: NASA/JPL).
Ultimately, the true focus of dream of Voyager was what it said about us. The message affixed in the form of the phonograph disk for any future discovers of the derelict spacecraft is also addressed in the book; I always find it fascinating that the public finds this simple addendum as the most intriguing element of the entire mission. Of course, it is mindboggling to think these artifacts of our existence may survive anything we’ve created here on Earth…
Looking back on the final encounter: Neptune and Triton. (Credit: NASA/JPL).
Read Voyager to gain an insightful perspective on human exploration, and the realm of the Voyager missions in their historical and cultural contexts. The author took on a truly huge scope for this work, and what emerges is a collective snapshot of where modern exploration stands, and perhaps a glimpse of where we might be headed. Perhaps it may be a pipe dream to imagine standing on the icy surface of Europa and gazing up at the bloated disk of Jupiter (plus, the radiation would kill me in about an hour), but we can still imagine the vista through the eyes of our automated messengers…
Nichelle Nichols (AKA “Uhura”) at JPL Mission control! (Credit: NASA/JPL).