Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery
On August 20 and September 5, 1977, two spacecraft, Voyager 2 and Voyager 1, respectively, lifted off atop Titan/Centaur rockets from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to begin a Grand Tour of the outer planets. Some 33 years and 21 billion kilometers later, having surveyed Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, their moons, and the interplanetary medium, and sent back enough digital information to fill a Library of Congress, they find themselves within the diaphanous heliosheath that divides the Sun from the stars. They have sufficient power for another ten years of operation, and racing at 440 million kilometers a year, that should grant them enough stamina to sail beyond the reach of the solar gases altogether and enter the interstellar winds before they expire.
The Voyager mission culminated what many of its contemporaries have come to regard as a golden age of American planetary exploration and what the future may well identify as the grand gesture of a Third Great Age of Discovery, the most recent revival of geographic journeying and questing in a chronicle that, for Western civilization, traces back to he fifteenth century. Yet what it has done for geography, the Voyager mission also does for history: the saga of the Voyagers' trek is carrying the inherited narrative of exploration to its outer limits, and perhaps beyond.
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The Voyagers are among explorations' purest expressions, and among both its strangest and its most revelatory. For more than five hundred years the West has relied on exploration to shape its encounter with a wider world, and to seek newer ones. That process has alloyed with adventure, curiosity and colonization, wanderlust, greed, war, pilgrimage, slavery, trade and missionizing, technological innovation, sheer animal instincts for survival, and moral imperatives, a vast historical cavalcade that has morphed and trod across, below, and beyond Earth, yet has organized itself in ways that align with the ambitions, the understandings, and the hopes of its sustaining society.
That chronicle has been neither random nor unbroken. It tacks and veers with changes in the technologies of travel and in modes of inquiry, with the opening of previously unknown lands, with the onset of fresh competitors and aspirations - in brief, with the core values and understandings of the culture that propels it. There are periods of quickening and of slackening; times when enthusiasm flames, and times when it smolders; eras when aggressive expansion seems irresistible, and eras when it appears to intellectuals as quaint, repugnant, or laughable. Twice in the past, geographic discovery as a project had been so reorganized in its fundamentals as to constitute an identifiable phase; call it a Great Age. This happened with the Great voyagers of the Renaissance, and it happened again as the Enlightenment dispatched Corps of Discovery to resurvey the old lands and to inventory whole continents with the sharpened eyes of science. Such eras rise from the general chronicle like mountain ranges, between which lie valleys of exhaustion or indifference. Beginning with the International Geophysical Year, another such Great Age has come into definition, drawn to new domains of geographic discovery, equipped with robots and remote sensors, and outfitted with a very different cultural syndrome, what might be termed a Greater Modernism. The Voyager mission nests within this narrative, and it may serve for this latest phase as a defining gesture of what it is about.
Yet a certain uneasiness hovers over this latest phase. It's dehumanized in sometimes unsettling ways. It has dispatched expeditions to new worlds, yes, but worlds inoculated against life, where no natives can guide and enlighten explorers, where no explorer can possibly live off the land, and where colonization is a fantasy. And perhaps most fundamentally the Voyager mission and its kind do not rely on human discoverers. The mantle of explorer rests on robots. How is this exploration? In what respects is his age continuous with and distinct from those that went before? In what ways does this new era of discovery recapitulate old ones, and in what ways does it exhibit new conceptions as well as technologies? How might its own enterprise be a novelty as spectacular as anything its journeys have unveiled? What has the era meant to he half-millennial saga of geographic exploration by Europe and its cognate civilizations? And why might that matter?
All this, Voyager has gathered from history, as its instruments have collected cosmic rays from deep space. The Voyager mission amassed the pieces of this new era, miniaturized and assembled them into working machines, and dispatched them on an immense journey. Those two spacecraft look back across fives centuries of looking outward. Their trek is a complex fugue of past and future, of tradition and novelty, a narrative that pushes onward to newer worlds by constantly realigning with a legacy of exploration to older ones. The Voyagers' journey is an apt symbol for what might be considered a Third Great Age of Discovery, which is our own.
- from "Mission Statement: Voyager of Discovery," pp. xiii, xvii-xviii
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