Out Now: Odyssey 22 (December 2012)

Interstellar explorer, Carl Sagan, who helped send the Voyagers on their way.

Voyaging into the future…

We all come to the BIS via different routes – sometimes as a result of an early interest in science fiction or astronomy, sometimes as a result of a particular career path. In this month’s issue, our new President talks to Odyssey about his own journey and his vision for the Society’s future as the space industry’s leading think tank. These many and varied routes into the BIS community allow a rich diversity of talent to flow into the Society, which is perhaps its greatest resource and one that is even now helping to make Alistair’s vision a reality.

This month’s Curiosity Corner contains a link that will take you all the way to the edge of the solar system, along the trajectory taken by the Voyager spacecraft, courtesy of a programme on the BBC i-player. This remarkable documentary should be headline news on the Corporation’s website; instead it is tucked away in the science pages awaiting discovery by those bored with the trivia that seems to occupy the headlines in todays media. The documentary is fascinating, not least for the way it highlights the work of several young engineers and mathematicians who made the Voyager missions possible. The story of how the twenty five year old Michael Minovitch solved the three body problem in celestial mechanics represents one of the great breakthroughs in human thought. Minovitch believed that the “secret of science is mathematics” and proved it by finding a route that would allow the space probes not only to navigate competing gravity fields, but also to borrow energy from each planet they visited as a way of catapulting themselves onto the next one.

Eric Burgess

Eric Burgess (centre) reaches for the stars at an early age. The two Pioneer space probes launched back in the 1970s may not bear the name of this British rocketeer but in a very real sense they do carry his signature. It was Burgess who suggested the idea for the plaques to Carl Sagan, who then made that idea a reality. So Eric really did make it into space, in spirit if not in body, a little piece of his creativity stowing itself away on-board these two now interstellar voyagers. And if non-human eyes, or their equivalent, do ever gaze upon those famous messages that distant “contact” will come about partly due to a man who did so much to bring the BIS into existence.

These robotic expeditions were undertaken at a time when such endeavours were still the province of science fiction, “like something out of a story by Arthur C. Clarke.” The famous Voyager plaques surely owe their antecedence to those on Pioneer 10 and 11, and to an idea for communicating with extra-terrestrial civilisations which originated with British engineer and BIS member Eric Burgess, as Odyssey has discussed in the past.

As Brian Blessed noted in his recent talk at the BIS, we live in strange times when the exploits of soap opera characters are of greater interest to most people than the triumphs of the human spirit, intellect and imagination. So in this month’s Odyssey we remember and salute the two Voyagers as they continue the greatest feat of exploration in the history of our species. It’s just a shame (to put it mildly) that most members of that species won’t even notice as our emissaries cross over into interstellar space.

I’d like to think that the Voyager story is far from over. We may yet hear from these spacecraft again, if only indirectly as the result of a response to the messages they carry. It may be many generations before we do hear back; but when we do it may rouse the viewing public from the torpor inspired by TVs, computers screens and i-players of every type and description. “We interrupt this programme with breaking news…” News that Carl Sagan and Eric Burgess were both certain would one day come from the stars.

Mark Stewart, FBIS
Editor: Odyssey
BIS Honorary Archival Librarian

Just a click away:

From the BIS Archives: Building Beneath the Stars: Eric Burgess (1920 – 2005)

From the BIS Archives: Paper Moons and Paper Rockets – Remembering Eric Burgess (Part Two)

Remembering Carl Sagan

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