Voyager: The Greatest Hack In History

Great entrepreneurism does not always happen in the private sector. In the early 1970s, Gary Flandro, an engineer at NASA-JPL found that the planets would line up in the late 1970s for the only time in the next 175 years. He worked with Sylvia Miller and the other JPL mathematicians & coders (almost all women at that time) to develop a trajectory for the mission that would “slingshot” around each planet’s gravitational field to come close to all the planets. This would allow the mission to take the first scientific readings and photos of all planets but Pluto. They called the mission the “Grand Tour.” NASA funded two probes which were upgraded Mariner spacecraft complete with a nuclear power source designed to last for 50 years.

However… when the Space Shuttle program began, the expensive Grand Tour was defunded. However the spacecraft were mostly built so NASA gave the permission for a shortened mission which would go no farther than Saturn. Off went the two Voyager spacecraft in 1977. But the women who developed the software had secretly compartmentalized the code to allow the Voyagers to complete the Grand Tour and the engineers had secretly modified Voyager to survive into interstellar space where gamma & X rays are much stronger than in the solar system.

The Voyagers took stunning photos and data from the planets including the famous “pale blue dot” photo of earth seen through the rings of Saturn which the famous astrophysicist Carl Sagan waxed eloquently about in his popular Cosmos TV program.


After the huge success and popularity of the Voyagers mission to Saturn, JPL finally told NASA that the probes had the hardware and code built in (within the miniscule memory capacity of just 40,000 bytes) to allow them to continue through the solar system (visiting Neptune & Uranus) and out into interstellar space. It was up to NASA to determine they wanted to continue to fund the radio ground stations, data analysis and mission control. NASA leaped at the chance and upgraded their (and other) radiotelescope ground links into a global mesh network to receive the ever-fainter Voyager radio broadcasts as it flew ever farther from us. The Dish at Stanford was part of the original network (I managed to catch the full moon behind The Dish in the photo here).

Both Voyagers passed out of our solar system recently and are now the only man made objects in interstellar space. In the process they discovered interstellar gravity “bubbles” that help explain black hole oddities, that our solar system gravity is asymmetrical which explains oddities here on earth, and interstellar shockwaves are created by our sun’s coronal mass ejections which make space “rough” and may help explain why stars seem to flicker in the night sky. 40 years after launch, both are functioning well and are expected perhaps past their 50 year power source life. The Voyager mission continues here.

This breathtaking mission (along with Apollo) is considered NASA’s greatest scientific achievement and ranks on par with the greatest explorers of all time. All because a handful of entrepreneurial women seized the initiative and hacked in some unapproved code. Here’s to the crazy ones, Sylvia Miller, Helen Ling, Susan Finley, Barbara Paulson and many others. They deserve a Nobel Prize. Their story, “The Rise of the Rocket Girls” is an inspiring read.

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