Monday, April 22, 2024

Voyager 1: A Long-Distance Miracle

Being a lifelong space buff, I remember when Voyager 1 was launched. When it lifted off in 1977, I was a nervous kid headed for college. I followed the mission on TV and in magazine articles as it made a slew of discoveries at Saturn and Jupiter, Eventually, as the internet appeared and Voyager began showing up in space history publications, I still kept an "eye" out as it left the solar system and counted off the billions of miles. In 1990, it took the famous "pale blue dot" photograph.  Around 2000, when my co-author Erika visited James Van Allen in his office at Iowa State for the writing of our book The First Space Race, he was, guess what, studying Voyager results.  It carried the "Golden Record" message from Earth into interstellar space. 

Over the years, the spacecraft was maintained from Earth, as controllers and then volunteers shut down non-vital functions to match its declining power levels. They also modified the software many times, no mean feat at such distances.  When it started sending garbage in late 2023, everyone assumed it was gone for good.

Almost everybody. A cadre of die-hards kept working. They developed a software fix, itself a challenge working with a computer 46 years old. The tiny capacity of its 68k "brain" and the daunting fact that it took 44 hours for a roundtrip for speed-of-light signals meant every line of code and every bit had to count. 

And they did it

Voyager 1 is alive again.  

"Congratulations" just doesn't say it, but it's the best I can do. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers, many now deceased, and the men and women who kept us in contact pulled off a truly amazing feat. God bless and Godspeed.

Maybe we can send these programming geniuses to Microsoft so they can come up with a Word upgrade that doesn't need umpteen gigabytes of space and  is easy to use. Nah. Microsoft would never go for it.

Matt Bille is a researcher, writer, historian, and naturalist in Colorado Springs.   He can be reached at mattsciwriter@protonmail,com and has a website at He was lead author of The First Space Race, published by NASA through Texas A&M in 2004. He is a member of the AIAA History Committee and the National Association of Science Writers. 

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