NASA launched Voyager I and Voyager II in 1977, on a 12-year mission to study and send back data from Jupiter and Saturn. That was the stated mission, as that was all that the U.S. government was willing to fund. However, scientists and engineers at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab had higher hopes for the probes. Forty years later, the two spacecraft are still sending back data, Voyager I from interstellar space, and Voyager II as it is crossing the the boundary of the solar system. Possibly even more surprising is that NASA engineers are still monitoring the mission.
All explorations demand sacrifices in exchange for uncertain outcomes. Some of those sacrifices are social: how many resources we collectively devote to a given pursuit of knowledge. But another portion is borne by the explorer alone, who used to be rewarded with adventure and fame if not fortune. For the foreseeable future, Voyager seems destined to remain in the running for the title of Mankind’s Greatest Journey, which might just make its nine flight-team engineers — most of whom have been with the mission since the Reagan administration — our greatest living explorers. They also may be the last people left on the planet who can operate the spacecraft’s onboard computers, which have 235,000 times less memory and 175,000 times less speed than a 16-gigabyte smartphone. And while it’s true that these pioneers haven’t gone anywhere themselves, they are arguably every bit as dauntless as more celebrated predecessors. Magellan never had to steer a vessel from the confines of a dun-colored rental office, let alone stay at the helm long enough to qualify for a senior discount at the McDonald’s next door.
Read about the engineers who’ve dedicated their lives to the Voyager mission at the New York Times. You can also keep up with the V-gers themselves by reading NASA’s status page on the mission. -via Metafilter
(Image credit: NASA/JPL)