The Little Spacecraft that Could

Lawrence J. Zottarelli wasn't looking for work, but a very specific job came and found him. Suzanne Dodd was the project manager for the Voyager 1 project – the project that launched the spacecraft of the same name into the heavens thirty-six years ago.

And now Voyager 1 was about to be the first man-made anything to exit the solar system. The team at NASA needed the old spacecraft to start collecting and transmitting more data using it's 8-track recorder and 23-watt transmitter, roughly the power of a refrigerator light bulb. They needed to coax more space (pun intended) out of the 8-track's limited tape.

When Voyager 1 launched in 1977, it was slated for a four year journey to visit Saturn. Needless to say, it has exceeded expectations – lasting 32 years longer and traveling more than 10 billion miles further than planned. Few projects, if any, have overachieved by as much.

Today it takes over 17 hours for data to travel from the spacecraft to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. That kind of lag in communication seems incomprehensible in 2013, with instant communication in our hands almost 24 hours a day. Many of us simply wouldn't have the patience to fly a nearly 40-year-old spacecraft that's over 11 billion miles away. It takes a very special team to do that.

Most new engineers at NASA had never even seen an 8-track recorder, let alone the knowledge of how to code for one. The Mars Rover mission, for example, had hundreds of talented engineers, but none that could help Dodd with her 8-track issue. She was having a Betamax problem in a Bluetooth era.

Eventually she found 77-year-old Zottarelli, a retired NASA engineer with just the skill set and knowledge she needed. Zottarelli had an idea of how to restructure the data being recorded to be more efficient. But finding out if the new method would work was a nearly 2-day round trip affair with the far flung Voyager 1.

The 12-person Voyager team, now housed in a nondescript building behind a McDonalds, gathered anxiously around two old Sun Microsystems computers waiting to see if the data dump was successful.

Looking at the data for a few moments, Zottarelli confirmed, "Everything's fine. You're on your own now."

It's expected that Voyager will continue sending signals home until around 2025, but it turns out there's not much to interact with in interstellar space. It's next appointment is with the dwarf star AC+793888 in the constellation of Camelopardalis. That will take place in 40,000 years.

Until then, Voyager! Until then.

Lesson of the Day: What are we doing today that we will look back on in 36 years and be so glad that we did it?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s