The 1970s brought immense change to NASA. In 1971, the central processing unit became commercially available. It allowed something that computers had struggled with before: handling multiple commands at once. And it let NASA enter a golden era of exploration, one that continues today with the Voyager probes. These probes, launched in 1977, visited the outer solar system and are now on the fastest trajectories of any craft as they head into interstellar space. They also have some of the first CPUs ever used by NASA, enabling the agency to move beyond the sequencer.It enables the agency to re-program the craft as needed using primitive assembly languages like Cobol, Fortran, and Algol. The ability to reprogram the craft helped it move beyond the outer solar system and toward measuring particles in interstellar space.
"It's brand new science"
Jones was brought into the Voyager program at the beginning in 1973, when both Pioneer probes were already en route to Jupiter and Saturn. Jones previously worked on the later Mariner missions and understood their basic architecture, which was similar to Voyager's.At that time, NASA was thinking even bigger. It wanted to do something no other agency had done: land an object on Mars. (The Soviets tried with Mars 2 and 3, both of which got there but neither of which were successful.) The Viking program was vital in our understanding of the red planet—and it also boasted the first CPU-based computer on-board any NASA probe which helped it perform some of the first hunts for microbial life on another planet.Read More: How Viking 1 Won the Martian Space RaceThat system was put inside the hardware of the Mariner probe architecture, creating a machine that could understand 4,096 words instead of just a few, one that was fully rewriteable, and offered control of all of the instruments on board on an ongoing basis, meaning that for some problems, there were workarounds in the case of instrument errors. (And there were plenty.)When the Voyagers were initially launched in 1977, their design was clear: it was a four-year mission to get to Saturn. Anything after that would need to be greenlit by the powers-that-be at NASA. Jones and his team helped position Voyager 2 toward Uranus after its 1981 Saturn encounter. The ability to write and rewrite code on the ground and reprogram the craft proved essential to its success. This can be especially challenging when trying to reach a bus-sized craft that's so far away it takes 17 hours for communication to reach it, even though the signals are blazing toward it at the speed of light.
The ability to write and rewrite code on the ground and reprogram the craft proved essential to Voyager's success