A Personal Voyage with Voyager

The Voyager missions opened up the worlds of the outer solar system to our scientific gaze. Courtesy NASA.

It has been 40 years since the Voyager missions left Earth on their way out to the realm of the gas and ice giant planets. At the time they left, I had just finished college (the first time) and beginning as a science writer. Those missions sparked my imagination. I remember sitting in someone’s living room watching the news conferences from JPL when Voyager 1 reached Jupiter. A couple of years later, I was at the press conference for the Voyager 2 at Saturn, covering it for the Denver Post. I managed to cover two more — at Uranus and Neptune. Ultimately those missions sent me back to school to study astronomy and space exploration. I was also inspired by watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series.

Voyager: Lifetimes of Exploration

In a sense, the Voyager missions have paralleled my career. For some people born about that time — and later — there’s never been a time without a Voyager spacecraft headed out of the solar system. I find that pretty darned amazing. Before they left, planetary science was the discipline of the future. Ground-based observatories provided the best views of the planets of the outer solar system. There was much to learn, and the things Voyager (and its predecessors, the Pioneer spacecraft) showed us dazzled our eyes.

I have been reading many stories about Voyager that are floating around the past week or so. It’s interesting to read new viewpoints on missions I’ve taken for granted. One story I read was faintly critical of the time it took for probes to reach their targets. I recognize the frustration; in a Star Trek universe, those probes would be halfway to the next galaxy by now. But, we live in a cosmos that is bound by some physical rules that it behooves every writer to understand.

Teaching Writers about Planets

Before scientists started sending probes to the other planets, not all writers knew about “transfer orbits” and “gravity assists” and “trajectory course corrections” and so on. Those are the tools of the trade for sending spacecraft to other worlds, particularly the latter two. When I got to JPL for the Saturn flyby, I encountered a fantastic cadre of people who already knew those terms. Many studied science and/or science journalism. With such erudite journalists, each press conference and informal briefing morphed into an informal graduate course in space science. It was not only educational but exhilarating to learn from them and from the scientists on the spacecraft teams. It left me wanting more. Which is why I went back to school. And, ultimately, I ended up writing about them in such projects as my fulldome show The Voyager Encounters (still available to planetariums, actually!).

Voyaging into the Future

Of course, times have changed. More missions have flown out to gas giants and beyond. Galileo, Cassini, Juno, and New Horizons have made their mark in outer solar system studies — from Jupiter to Pluto, and beyond. Cassini is coming to an end in a couple of weeks after another lifetime of studying the Saturnian system. For people in their early teens or so, there’s never been a time when we weren’t exploring Saturn, its rings and moons, up-close and personal. New Horizons is well over a decade “on the road”. For those born midway through the first decade of the 21st Century, there’s never been a time without a spacecraft on the way to the Kuiper Belt.

What missions will inspire future kids who are like me? Perhaps Mars missions. Nearly 100 missions have been launched or are on the drawing boards to go to the Red Planet. There’s an awfully good chance that the first Mars explorers are sitting in grade school or perhaps even high school right now, in classrooms around the world. What they learn about exploration will come from their teachers, scientists, and writers like me. I hope we continue to have missions to inspire us and them, just as my cadre had the Voyagers and their sister ships.

Me? I’m a science writer, and the future holds many tales to tell!

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