The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission by Jim Bell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A tense, house-of-cards moment occurred during Voyager 1’s flyby of the planet Saturn in November of 1980. There were many tense moments, but this one had broad implications reaching decades ahead to the present day. Voyager 1’s top priority was to image the moon Titan close up. Titan boasted an atmosphere and potentially liquid on the surface. The close flyby meant sacrificing any chance for Voyager 1 to travel on to Pluto (which ended up waiting until 2015 for its first visit). But here’s the part that made me catch my breath. If Voyager 1’s flyby of Titan had failed, there was a plan to have Voyager 2 make a second attempt. If Voyager 2 had been routed to fly by Titan, there would have been no visits to Uranus or Neptune. Such are the ultimatums given by orbital mechanics and the ever changing positions of planets.
The above dilemma plays out in a chapter titled “Drama Within the Rings.” The Voyager missions, like all space missions, generated a great deal of drama. Jim Bell captures it well in The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission. Readers will learn how close we came to missing out on the famed, almost religiously revered, Pale Blue Dot image. Much of the drama comes from the flyby nature of the mission. Every time Voyagers 1 and 2 arrived at a new planet, the science teams back on Earth knew they had only one opportunity to capture images and data. A recurring theme, and word, in this book is “pressure.” No U-turns and few if any second chances.
To a lesser extent, The Interstellar Age is about a budding young scientist: the author. Bell ferreted his way into the mission control center, willing to fetch pizza and coffee for a chance to be near the action. Voyager’s mission has spanned his life heretofore. His book captures both heart-stopping moments and poignant changing of the guards. As scientists and engineers who designed the mission moved on to other missions or retired, younger researchers came onboard.
Bell exhibits a keen awareness, but also an evangelical fondness, for the subject material. Late in the book he unabashedly refers to himself and others as disciples of the late Carl Sagan. I must include myself in that group. Bell’s decision to embark on a career in science holds as a primary inspiration watching Dr. Sagan’s Cosmos series. Of his approach to communicating science, Bell suggests Sagan “was probably the first scientist I had ever encountered who spoke English.
“I mean common English, more like what you’d hear around the dinner table than the jargon and shorthand codes that most scientists typically use when talking about their work. But that plain talk was also laced with metaphor and analogy and evocatively grand cadences, often accompanied by the soaring and romantic electronic music of Vangelis.”
Like Sagan, Bell strives to make his writing conversational and accessible. This is a great read for people wanting to take a grand tour of the Voyager mission. As readers glide through the final pages, the Voyager probes glide toward the edge of the solar system. The primary mission long since completed, Voyager’s greater journey into the galaxy has only just begun.
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