Back in 1977, Voyager 1 and 2 were launched – 16 days apart – on mission through the solar system. Voyager 1 is now in a newly ascribed region nicknamed the “magnetic highway” where particles from inside and outside the solar system are passing each other. It represents the fringe of the Sun’s environment. It is estimated that the craft will break into interstellar space – space between solar systems – in a few months or a year or two. Voyager 1 is now roughly 11 billion miles from the sun and Voyager 2 close behind at 9 billion miles. Signals take 17 hours to reach Voyager 1.
To borrow and paraphrase what a college engineering friend posted on Facebook in response to the recent news about the craft:
We built a spacecraft 37 years ago, launched it 35 years ago where it has been continuously operating in a radiation-filled environment capable of killing a person in a few days. The radio-based communication system still works using vacuum tubes*. The first personal computers were introduced in 1975 – the MITS Altair 8800. And the Apple I was designed a year later with 5¼” floppy drives. When the craft was launched, the Apple ][, TRS-80 and Commodore PET were also launched. Conclusion: engineers in 1975 must have eaten glass and crapped top iPhone designers.
As in many industries, I think Americans have become lazy. Years ago I worked in a video game division for a startup. We had a programmer who learned in Russia (and then legally emigrated to the US). He developed for our company a core game engine that was lightning fast – around the time of the original Doom video game series. While working with him, he pointed out that in Russia, they didn’t have machines with the top processors and loads of memory so they made do with what was available and every processor cycle and bit in memory was considered. This is the type of engineering that went on in the space industry – and maybe still does to some degree (although recent evidence suggests some easing of those constraints).
I’m not saying that there are some in American still performing at this level, but I think it’s grossly underused and wonder where we could be if more engineers (and others) adopted such an approach.
*The Voyager transmitters use a pencil-type vacuum tube in the final amplifier. No transistors at the time could operate at the required frequency and power level and also operate in the radiation-filled environment.