The Interstellar Age, by Jim Bell (2015)

The interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission1977 was a year the Earth looked spaceward. A year after Star Wars hit the screens, Spielberg gave us Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The Carpenters turned Canadian band Klaatu’s song, “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft”, into a world-wide hit. I remember listening to a radio talk show when the Voyager mission to Jupiter, Saturn and beyond was about to launch. It would take two years to reach Jupiter and 12 years to reach Neptune, using magnetic tape (think 8-track) technology to record, digitize and send back amazing photos – planetary postcards. Beyond Neptune the two craft would simply keep going, occasionally sending us data as we seek an answer the question, Is anybody out there? NASA scientists hoped the spacecraft could last 30 years or more. Into the next millennium! How incomprehensible to a child, but how incredibly far-seeing a project this really was. Its genesis began in the mid-1960s, when author Jim Bell and I were born, and tomorrow, September 5, marks the 38th anniversary of the launch of Voyager I, which left about two weeks after Voyager II. Powered with plutonium-based nuclear energy, the two craft are now out of the solar system and into interstellar space. Jim Bell was never on the Voyager team, but he is a planetary scientist and has, throughout his career, been an eager bystander, first as a grad student and later a keenly interested colleague. If you are looking for the real inside story of Voyager, this isn’t it. It’s more of an ode to the mission, a biography of Voyager I and II that won’t inform the dedicated fan, but is fascinating reading for lightweights like me who want to know more. Um, okay, I’ll admit it here. There were two Voyagers? Cool. If I knew that, I’d forgotten it! I did know about the Golden Record, and enjoyed reading about its creation, what is on it and what’s not. The book is written in narrative form, beginning with an explanation of gravity assist, the structure of a mission team that numbers in the hundreds and even thousands, and an introduction to some of the key people whose names will appear throughout the book. There’s a section called “Voyager and Me”, which outlines Bell’s connection, essentially a mega-fan’s ringside seat to the action, which then unfolds in chronological order. Bell is unapologetically admiring of the entire project and the people involved, with a noticeable passion for Carl Sagan’s contribution. There are eight pages of colour plates, and oh, I wanted more. More diagrams are also needed – I found myself wishing for one as I read and reread the discussion of Voyager’s science booms and antennas (p. 56). A timeline would have been helpful, going back to Copernicus and his contemporaries, since Bell frequently refers to major astronomical discoveries of the ages. He explains the science behind the mission, from radio signals to the heliopause, in an accessible and engaging way, making this appealing for teens who’d like to know more about “Veejer,” as Star Trek fans know Voyager. Give this book to someone whose interest in human space exploration was piqued by this summer’s amazing photos of Pluto from the New Horizons mission.
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About Michelle Mallette
I'm just trying to keep track of the books I've read - what I liked and what isn't worth re-reading. My work as a librarian has included youth services so you'll find a wide range of interests from picture books and teen dystopia to adult sci-fi, road trip novels, and nonfiction. Comments and communication is always welcome.

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