Taking advantage of a rare celestial alignment of the planets, those two robots, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, gave us all our first detailed, high-resolution, glorious views of the solar system beyond Mars, revealing the giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, and their panoply of rings and moons, in all their awesome wonder — not just for scientists, but also for poets, musicians, painters, novelists, moviemakers, historians, and even kids.
—The Interstellar Age, p.2.
I’ve just finished reading Jim Bell’s The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty Year Voyager Mission, and, what a ride for an old space nerd like me! The book is a bit of a hybrid, at once a biography of the ongoing Voyager mission and of Bell the Planetary scientist and President of the Planetary Society. I’ll say right off, I didn’t learn a whole lot about the Voyager missions. Bell and I are near contemporaries – I was born at the beginning of the 60s and Bell in the middle. Certainly we took very different educational paths, though we apparently shared unexemplary dedication to our studies. But what Bell and I do share is a passion for discovery and the very human idea of exploration.
Bell emulates our shared inspiration, Carl Sagan, emphasizing that Voyager isn’t about robots exploring the universe – it’s about humans, very real, next door neighbour, funny, quirky, artistic humans exploring the universe with tools they have made with their ingenuity and the creativity of generations of engineers, technicians, mathematicians, writers, artists, musicians and poets. Bell met Sagan. I only read his words and saw him on television. Bell was at times in the thick of the Voyager excitement, was on the sidelines for the rest. I was always up in the cheap seats with a pair of binoculars and one bad eye. I watched Star Trek. Bell watched Star Trek, but for some reason doesn’t mention Voyager’s appearance in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Despite our different paths, Bell and I have watched the Voyager probes carefully for all our adult lives, so, there wasn’t much new to me about Voyager in The Interstellar Age.
But I couldn’t put it down!
The book opens with frequent references to the Arts and Sagan’s friend and collaborator, artist Jon Lomberg is mentioned and cited throughout. The book is about the creativity of science, the joy of collaboration, and the sheer human exhilaration of being part of a huge, multi-generational creative process. The Interstellar Age is an inspiring celebration of the human spirit, the spirit expressed in the Golden Records we all sent to the stars on the two Voyagers.
Bell’s book is not about robots, planets and orbital mechanics. It is about the wonder of being human in this infinitely discoverable but never fully knowable universe. That’s a great Argument I’m glad to be a part of!
The Interstellar Age is published by Dutton.
Just after I finished writing and posting this review I learned of Leonard Nimoy’s departure. Nimoy’s portrayal of Spock, the Scientist-as-Hero-in-Space, I know inspired many of Bell’s and my generation to pursue careers or life-long interest in Space Science. The One made such a difference to the Many.
Thank you, sir.