Glenn Reynolds Reviews “Voyager” (a new book about the space probe, not the TV series)

For my money, Glenn Reynolds is one of the most interesting thinkers of my generation and today’s Internet age. In Germany last week, Instapundit was #1 on my relatively short list of websites that European students should check regularly to escape the cocoon of their media–which uniformly echoes the conventional wisdom of the New York Times. (Educated Europeans do not seem to realize that everything they believe about the U.S. and beyond they share in common with the American Left and/or the talking points of the DNC; at least in my years of traveling and lecturing throughout Europe, I have yet to hear a truly novel European view. But I digress.)

Glenn combines insight and wit together with an eclectic range of interests. He demonstrates this in today’s Wall Street Journal (apparently freely available without subscription!) in this review of a new book on the Voyager space probe program. Here’s an excerpt to induce you, as someone I know says, to “read the whole thing.”:

A couple of decades ago, as a fresh new academic, I attended a Smithsonian Institution workshop on civilization in outer space. I made the mistake of using the term “space colonization,” and the discussion was then hijacked for nearly half an hour as participants felt obliged to weigh in on the evils of colonialism. My objection that the atrocities aimed at the inhabitants of the Belgian Congo were unlikely to be re-enacted on Mars, which has no inhabitants, fell on deaf ears. The discussion, with its hairshirt attitude toward Western civilization, was odd for a conference about expanding horizons, something that Western civilization has done better than any other.

I was reminded of the Smithsonian workshop while reading Stephen J. Pyne’s “Voyager.” The book offers 200 terrific pages on the two unmanned Voyager space probes launched in 1977, their accomplishments—which, astonishingly, continue—and the immense difficulties they overcame. Alas, those pages are buried inside the more than 400-page book that Mr. Pyne has actually published. It is a work that dilutes the tremendous accomplishments of the Voyager project—of which the author clearly approves—with wordy and tendentious efforts to place Voyager in “perspective” by discussing the great age of exploration on this planet, regarding which Mr. Pyne is not nearly so enthusiastic. Yet Voyager 1 and Voyager 2—now sending back data, after having traveled more than 13 billion miles apiece, from the solar winds beyond the farthest planets of the solar system—would never have been initiated had not the Western spirit of exploration taken hold in the days of Magellan and remained alive into the 20th century.

The Voyager story itself is an amazing one, and Mr. Pyne tells it skillfully. We forget too easily what a gamble the project was. The execution of history’s greatest feat of navigation—in which a spacecraft had to be placed within 62 miles of its target at a distance of more than five billion miles—was astonishing, though somehow NASA, in its inimitable way, made it look boring. The hardware, the software and even the astrodynamics involved were new and largely untried. Mr. Pyne deftly shows how the development of rocketry, of orbital science and of computer technology all came together just in time to take advantage of a once- every-176-years planetary alignment that would allow a spacecraft to make close passes of outer planets— Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune—all in one long trip.

Mr. Pyne draws a number of interesting lessons from the Voyager missions. . . .

I particularly like this part of the story:

When the Voyagers were built, their computers were state-of-the-art, but by the time Voyager 2 exited the solar system in 2007, before heading into the depths of interstellar space, their technology was outmatched by the merest cellphone. Software adjustments helped reduce the technology gap: Though the computer hardware of the Voyagers couldn’t be upgraded remotely, their software could be constantly improved, which meant the spacecraft got better even as they got older. We tend to think of space missions in terms of rockets and hardware, Mr. Pyne notes, but the story of the Voyager probes is also one of communications and software.

Comments are closed.