Author: Stephen J. Pyne
Title: Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery
Publication Info: Viking Adult (2010)
I’ve long been fascinated by the Voyager missions to explore the solar system. I kind of grew up alongside Voyager, with the launches occurring just a few years after my birth and the encounters with Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune happening over the course of my life. I was eager to read this book and learn more details of the program and its discoveries. Pyne provides great detail about how the program started in the 1960s to take advantage of a once in a century alignment of the outer planets, funding and development, launch, and the various discoveries along the way.
Unfortunately, the author also has this theory of the Three Ages of Discovery when Western peoples voyaged out to learn what lay beyond their horizons. The first age is in the 15th-16th century and involves mainly Spanish/Portuguese expeditions to find new sea routes, circumnavigate the Earth and colonize the “New World.” The second age is the primarily British 18th to early 20th century efforts to seek the sources of rivers, climb the highest peaks, open up continental interiors and reach the poles. The third age is the 20th-century exploration of space (and to some extent under the oceans). This framework is problematic due to its Eurocentrism and skimming over the details of colonialism and exploitation of “discovered” places and people who long had lived in these lands, although Pyne does tie this idea into the military and propaganda purposes to the United States of the putative global Voyager mission.
The whole Three Ages idea might make a good introductory chapter to the book, but instead every time things about Voyager get interesting, Pyne keeps popping back to talk about Vasco de Gama or Lewis & Clark or Robert Peary. This tends to distract rather than support the main narrative. I think a straight history of Voyager would make a more interesting book than the flabby, half-baked philosophical treatise we have here.