An expensive, taxpayer-financed project designed by committee and employing thousands of government workers turned out beautifully. This was the first of many miracles of the Voyager mission, two space probes that conducted one of the greatest scientific explorations of the 20th century.
Planetary Society President Bell (Earth and Space Exploration/Arizona State Univ; The Space Book: From the Beginning to the End of Time, 250 Milestones in the History of Space & Astronomy, 2013, etc.) mixes his autobiography with an enthusiastic history of Voyager, enthusiasm that, for once, is entirely justified. A high school student during the 1977 launches, Bell haunted Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a Cal Tech undergraduate during the 1980s as data poured in. It is still arriving. Ten chapters recount the stages of the mission, most of which are milestones of their own. The probes themselves are miracles of old technology: eight-track tapes, computers weaker than ones in our pockets—not the cellphones but the keys that unlock our cars. Four chapters describe flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, each lasting days or less, during which instruments returned dazzling photographs and surprising, unexpected information about the planets and their moons. No one planned what followed, but many instruments continued to function, so scientists continued to listen. In 2012, Voyager 1 passed beyond the sun’s influence to enter true interstellar space; Voyager 2 will follow, and both will transmit until power runs out around 2025. “We are all living—right now—in an Amazing Golden Age of Exploration, of our planet and of our solar system,” writes the author.
Uninterested in sending men into space (China is the only nation with an ongoing manned program), Congress remains willing to finance unmanned projects with strictly scientific objectives. These have yielded rich rewards, and Bell delivers an exuberant account of one of the most rewarding.