Summer Space Reading List: The Interstellar Age

I’m constantly reading space books and have occasionally reviewed them here, in my science column at Forbes. I’ve decided to launch a series of reviews that will build a Summer 2022 Space Reading List composed of works by friends of mine in the space community.

The Interstellar AgeJim Bell (Penguin, Dutton Random House, 2015. Penguin audio,, read by Jim Bell)

Favorite quote from this book: New discoveries lurk within the details of the unexpected.

The 1960s and 70s were inspirational times for young nerds, like me. Hard science fiction from Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, and Jerry Pournelle drove my passion for an exciting human future in space. Isaac Asimov’s prolific output of science essays and books grounded that passion. Real world space exploits by NASA operationalized it. America’s national space agency seemed to be everywhere at once during that period; going to moon, building an orbital space plane, and exploring the solar system from Mercury to Neptune! Three NASA programs strongly influenced my personal goal to eventually to secure a career in the space world: the Apollo Moon landings, the Viking Mars landing, and the exploration of the outer solar system by the Voyager probes.

The two Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977, were particularly influential to me because their missions occurred when I was a teenager, that important time in one’s life when you are young enough to be amazed by technology but finally educated enough to grasp some of the science behind it. I wasn’t the only one captivated by these robots. The Voyagers were immortalized in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a film that required me to ditch a day of high school and wait in line for eight hours in order catch the first showing. While I was pleased to see the Star Trek future included funding for six Voyager missions (alas, there were only the two), it was less heartening to see one them going postal; V’Ger returns from interstellar space to threaten the Earth with a destructively high-powered delivery of its research findings. On a more positive note, real Voyager images also inspired the flyby sequences of Jupiter and Saturn in the original opening sequence of the Star Trek: Next Generation TV series.

Of course, most of the Voyager excitement occurred back in the 80s when I was busy being an entrepreneur in the software, computer, and networking space. I didn’t have direct access to the cool kids from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, like I do now. I eagerly followed the Voyager flybys of Jupiter (1979), Saturn (1981), Uranus (1986), and Neptune (1989) in newspaper and magazine stories (sigh, no Internet kids). It was Jim Bell’s description, over a recent dinner with colleagues, of the challenges he had in recording the audio version of The Interstellar Age that reminded me of my love for those missions and prompted me to take up the audio version of his 2015 book.

I’m a fan of many excellent voice actors who do audiobook narrations. I particularly love Wil Wheaton’s narration of modern Sci Fi classics. However, when an author does the reading of his or her own work, the result can be fantastic, and I was not disappointed here. With The Interstellar Age on audio, I know the pronunciations are precise, as in not saying “probing Uranus” as gleefully as the proverbial twelve-year-old. A good, author-read audiobook can also conveys subtle humor from text to the listener. My favorite humorous anecdote appears when Jim discusses the “grand adjectives of exploration.” These are the words like “plucky”, “intrepid,” or “courageous” which are often applied to our favorite space robots by the media. Of course, the Voyagers are simply doing what they were built to do so long ago and executing the code that we send to them. They are unaware of the frightening risks they face, a given requirement for sentient beings who aspire to be plucky, intrepid, or courageous! However, this harsh reality doesn’t stop us science fanboys from loving metallic space critters, so Jim must set us straight with the advice of Voyager Project Manager John Casani, “Don’t anthropomorphize the spacecraft, they don’t like it.”

In addition to the science, the multidecadal scope of this book offers an in-depth career biography for Dr. Bell. While this should be interesting for any aspiring space scientist, the author’s voice adds real feeling to his descriptions of growing up in Rhode Island where he discovered amateur astronomy as well as his time as a PhD student at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. I have the real honor to work at Arizona State University where Jim runs the New Space initiative. I’ve guest taught in his classes, and he is on the faculty for the Executive Masters in Global Management – Space Leadership, Policy and Business that I’ve launched at ASU’s Thunderbird School of Global Management. Still, The Interstellar Age taught me new things about Jim’s amazing life journey that made me appreciate him even more.

Beyond Jim’s biography and the grandeur of the Voyager journey, The Interstellar Age offers invaluable insights into the complexity of managing a long duration NASA robotic mission. The mechanics of conceiving, designing, pitching, winning, and operating a half century long research project are really interesting. Dr. Bell’s book has the answers for those of you who have been curious how JPL and NASA work together or have wondered what factors play in selecting the science objectives, influencing the engineering design, and choosing the people to build and operate an interplanetary spacecraft. In this case, an interstellar spacecraft as it was the Voyagers’ recent passages from our solar system into interstellar space that prompted Jim to author this retrospective look at those intrepid missions and a courageous career trajectory that paralleled the long journeys of those plucky probes.

Like the Voyagers’ missions, Jim’s career continues. After supporting the camera systems for previous Mars rovers, he is now the Principal Investigator (PI) for Mastcam Z, which are the amazing primary cameras on the Perseverance Mars Rover that capture the finest color, 3D and VR images ever taken on the surface of another planet. Jim is also the Deputy PI on the ASU headed Psyche Mission to a metal asteroid (Look for my upcoming review of PI Lindy Elkins-Tanton’s new book, A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman).

Jim Bell is a long-time member of the Planetary Society and served as its President. So, if you purchase his book (or other stuff) on Amazon, you might consider using the Amazon Smile option to back a non-profit organization, which supports and advocates for planetary exploration. They also have a spacey gift page.

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