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Book Review: Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery by Stephen J. Pyne

Review by Alexandra Witze

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What with Mars rovers that tweet and space telescopes with Facebook fan pages, one might think space exploration today is just another part of modern life. In this new book, however, environmental scholar Pyne reminds readers of the rich cultural history that underlies humankind’s exploration of the cosmos.

To frame his story Pyne chooses the twin Voyager missions, launched in 1977 to study Jupiter and Saturn but later extended for a “Grand Tour” that also took in Uranus and Neptune. The probes, he argues, symbolize a Third Age of exploration — the first being the 15th century ocean voyages pioneered by the Portuguese and the second the land-based exploration of the 18th century, driven in large part by rivalry between England and France.

Planetary exploration, Pyne says, was a natural successor, stimulated in the 1950s by technological advances and by the space race of the Cold War. His narrative is a remarkable intermingling of the story of the Voyager probes — their birth at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, their long slow cruise through interplanetary space — with a historian’s take on how space exploration sprang from timeless yearnings to push frontiers.

Today both Voyagers are still in operation and are passing beyond the edge of the solar system, serving as distant ambassadors for humankind. In this book, Pyne puts that quest in grand perspective.

Viking, 2010, 425 p., $29.95.

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