Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery

by Stephen J. Pyne

Viking | July 2010 | 444 pages | $29.95

Reviewed by Jill Noel Shreve

“Across five centuries, while the vocabulary of exploration has changed, its syntax has remained intact.” In his newest non-fiction project, Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Age of Discovery, Stephen J. Pyne illustrates this idea for his audience, and he does it in an unconventional way. Rather than focusing the trajectory of the book on the 1977 Voyager 1 and 2 launches and their respective interplanetary Grand Tours, Pyne opts for a presentation in context. He taps into the idea that exploration transcends centuries, comparing space exploration—specifically the mission of Voyager—to the great expeditions of Columbus, da Gama, Lewis and Clark, Livingston, Magellan, and other famous spelunkers and explorers.

With artful grace, Pyne weaves together the story of the Voyager in an historical context of exploration and discovery, giving his audience access to a richer understanding of the development and use of these spacecrafts. By fitting the Voyager into her proper historical place, he shows his audience that the syntax of exploration has indeed remained intact across five centuries.

But Pyne doesn’t get bogged down in the last five centuries of exploration. He clearly articulates the Voyager’s history, moving through its conception, gestation and birth. While leading his audience through the history of its production, Pyne consistently points out how humanity always maneuvers through exploration in a similar fashion. He shows his audience that by foot, boat, wagon, submarine, or spacecraft, humans have always searched outside their current environment, eagerly seeking places to explore. For example, Pyne explains that the JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab) created three Voyager spacecrafts, rather than merely one. He writes, “Launch windows were unforgiving, interplanetary space hostile, and distances impossibly remote. If something went wrong, there was no opportunity to return…the simplest solution was to send multiple vessels.”            Pyne then seamlessly crosses over into a discussion of past expeditions, explaining how Cabral, Davis, Cook, and Cabot all went out in fleets. Detailing different tours and travels, over centuries, terrains and climates, he makes a solid foundation for why JPL created three Voyagers, instead of only one.

This is Pyne’s strength, and he weaves it throughout the work, volleying between history and the Voyager mission, revealing for his audience how the Voyager mission mirrors that of all great journeys.

Pyne also bridges the language gap for his audience. Even though he has the capacity to maneuver through dense science-jargon and ideas, he doesn’t treat his audience as though they should be able to do the same. He makes the language and concepts accessible, inviting his audience in, rather than scaring them away with complicated vernacular, designs and equations. He continuously articulates clearly about the Voyager using the simplest terms. And in many cases, he uses metaphors and allusions of literature, music, and the visual arts to communicate even further what he means. He gives his audience tangible things to hang on to and resonate with, so that anyone reading about this project can understand. His objective lies in sharing what he’s learned, and not by sounding lofty or heady.

In addition to making language accessible, Pyne also provides systematic structure for his audience to follow. He divides his work into three distinct sections. Part one, titled “The Beginning and Beyond,” traces the birth and launch of Voyager 1 and 2. Moving through the narrative of the mission’s successes and failures, he gives the audience an opportunity to ignore their own historical knowledge, allowing them to wonder if the Voyagers will ever make it off the ground. Pyne divides the middle section, “Beyond the Sunset,” into two subsections titled “Beyond Earth” and “Beyond the Inner Planets.” In this second section, the audience receives up-close encounters of all planets slated for the Grand Tour. Pyne gives his readers the chance to see what Voyager saw. And in part three, titled “Beyond the Utmost Bond,” Pyne steers his audience into Voyager’s interstellar exploration. In looking at something as complex as the Voyager’s birth and over three-decade-long-life, an audience could get lost, but with Pyne’s orderly structure, he leads them through the thicket coherently, to current events.

And Pyne doesn’t stop with this elegantly structured dual-narrative.

For those of his audience who love to see images and illustrations, Pyne includes eight pages of photographs and diagrams in the middle of his work. And for those of his audience who want further information or clarification on the Voyager and its exploration, the book also contains an eleven-page appendix, twenty-eight pages of endnotes and seven pages of source material. It’s evident that Pyne is stoked about exploration, along with the Voyager mission, and he wants his audience to know and share in that same passion.

Because of the cover, when I picked up the book, I thought I’d be set out to read 400 pages about the launch and Grand Tours of Voyagers 1 and 2. But what I got was something much more. “Voyager is not the text I set out to write,” Pyne confesses in the Acknowledgements section of the book. He continues, “What intrigued me about the Voyager mission…was its long history, which is to say, a lengthy and complex narrative that I thought might braid with a general chronicle of geographic discovery by Western civilization.” And this is what I got when I read Voyager. I not only learned that most of what we know about the solar system came from these two spacecrafts, but I learned how vehemently our species gravitates toward exploration. We, as humans, must continuously search, seek, and discover. It’s in our DNA. And because of Pyne’s profound insightfulness, I highly recommend this book. So, explore your local book-store at the end of this month for Pyne’s Voyager. You won’t be disappointed.

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