An environmental historian blends the past, present and future of exploration in a unique account of the Voyager space program.
Pyne (Life Sciences/Arizona State Univ.; Voice and Vision: A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Nonfiction, 2009, etc.) sets for himself a difficult task—vivifying for the general reader the 30-year journey of an unmanned spacecraft. After all, our interest in exploration is often inextricable from our fascination with the explorers themselves. The author ingeniously overcomes this built-in narrative disadvantage, where the technology itself is the exploring agent, by placing the Voyager mission—two spacecraft designed to visit the outer planets of our solar system and beyond—squarely within the context of several hundred years of exploration. The International Geophysical Year of 1957–58, a project designed to take the scientific temperature of the Earth, oceans and space, kicked off the Third Great Age of Discovery, which arose from quickened national rivalries inspiring an unusual period of expansion. Previous Ages of Discovery featured all manner of extraordinary achievements, and each culminated in a Grand Tour—e.g., Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe, von Humboldt’s Latin American expedition—that perfectly captured the era’s ambition. For our own Age, Voyager is that venture, a crowning gesture of remarkable cultural consequence. Pyne reports fully on the program’s genesis and evolution, Voyager’s discoveries and its signal encounters with the asteroid belt, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and interstellar space. The author’s acuity and interpretive skill come most impressively to bear when he regularly suspends the narrative, “cruising” he calls it, to draw striking connections between Voyager’s journey and expeditions of the past. The many parallels—political, technological, social, economic, military, scientific, even spiritual—fix Voyager’s place in the constellation of discovery, even as Pyne distinguishes the mission and our age from its ancestors.
A challenging but immensely rewarding read.