peteg's blog - noise - books - 2012 01 26 Pyne Voyager

Stephen J. Pyne: Voyager: Seeking newer worlds in the third great age of discovery.

/noise/books | Link

I got suckered by a review of this book in the New York Times, and figured it'd have to be worth six squid for a copy from a U.S. bookseller (via Abebooks). I'm now absolutely certain that copy was remaindered for good reason.

As everyone my age or older knows, the Voyager probes were sent by NASA to survey the outer planets on a "Grand Tour", and sent back some awesome photographs throughout the 1980s. I'm generally curious about the science they carried out but more interested in the engineering that yields spacecrafts as functional as these still are 34 years later. What electronic technology did they use? (Integrated circuits had been around for a while, and I could imagine they used custom chips with transistor counts in the tens. What substrate?) What is the power source? What is the architecture of the several onboard computers? — and so on. I feel the kid who can't stop asking why.

You won't find satisfying answers to any of these questions in this book. This is a literatti's take on exploration whose erudition garners great reviews from other literatti (i.e. in the mainstream press). The central premise is not really Voyager so much as an overcooked "third age of exploration" neologism encompassing the author's previous history of Antarctic exploration and now space. Unfortunately he is less interested in educating than in appearing erudite, so we get the old synaptic twinge of faux intelligence when we know what he's going to say, and feel dumb (and numb) for the rest of the time. I can't pretend to get all his references; I didn't know anything about the exploration of the United States and still don't.

At times the book gets almost offensively desultory, such as its treatment of Voyager 2's encounter with Neptune which includes barely a page on the moon Triton. Things get seriously weird out there at the gonzo end of the solar system, and as we're not going back any time soon it would have made sense to spend more effort on these unique features of this program. The photographs are also complete rubbish — black-and-white, and nothing iconic. Irritatingly the author makes a lot of these famous images in the text. Voyager 2 is the same age as me, but while I'm stuck in a circle centred on the sun with its crash-test sibling, it's out there doing things, not reading poor accounts of the same.

Ultimately the bibliography was the most valuable part. Tomayko's account of NASA's use of computers in spaceflight can be found here, and Heacock's account of the engineering is also easy to find on the net. The photos are freely available from NASA. My questions are answered on the Voyager Wikipedia page under "Computers" — I guessed they might have been using military-spec 54xx TTL chips but had not heard of "Silicon on Sapphire" technology.