In the summer of 1977, two massive Titan/Centaur rockets launched Voyager’s 1 and 2 beyond Earth’s bounds on a mission to the very edge of the solar system. Using the gravity of the worlds they passed to gain additional speed, the two intrepid probes would speed on a ‘Grand Tour’ of the previously unvisited outer planets of our solar system. Pyne’s work of non-fiction chronicles the birth of the Voyager project, the epic journey of the two unmanned probes and the future of exploration in the far reaches of the solar system. All considered in the light of 500 hundred years of exploration by the western world.
That a paragraph waxing nostalgically about the long history of terrestrial exploration eats up the majority of the publisher description on the book’s flap should be taken by the reader as a sign of things to come. Long philosophical ramblings on Lewis and Clark, Magellan, Columbus etc. etc. make an appearance early in the book, and soon come to dominate it. Given the length of the book (444 p.) this reader would have expected more analysis of the planets and moons visited, but these new worlds travelled to and discovered by the twin unmanned craft received only passing treatment. Certainly, the book didn’t waste pages on scientific analysis. Perhaps most unforgivably, in my opinion, the book contains only 8 (!) black and white photos, and only 6 from the Voyagers. When writing about a mission best remembered, by many, for the jaw dropping color photos of unexplored worlds, there should be some of those photos! The book is not poorly written, it is primarily a victim of bad advertising. The cover and much of the publisher information screams “detailed history of astronomy and unmanned space exploration.” This is not that. It isn’t even a history of the Voyager missions. It’s primarily a history of exploration as seen, looking backward, through the lens of one of the 20th centuries greatest journeys. As I said, not poorly written; just poorly packaged and marketed. I would recommend this book for those generally interested in journeys of science and exploration (fans of Stephen Ambrose take note) first, and only as a secondary, non-essential read for astronomy buffs. For serious astronomy buffs, Lives of the Planets : A Natural History of the Solar System by Richard Corfield is still the best history of space exploration I’ve read recently. For those with a more passing interest, I would recommend Dava Sobel’s The Planets. If you’re still looking for more after those, you should consider Voyager.
Pros: Well written chronicle of western exploration, with some ‘cool space stuff’ thrown in.
Cons: The only thing that got marketed is the ‘cool space stuff;’ reader beware, this book is not entirely what it claims to be. Many, many comparisons of the Voyager space craft to Portuguese caravels.