Monday, July 19, 2010

Voyager Mission: Fond Memories

There's been a bit of discussion of the Voyager mission of late, since these space probes are still operational, almost thirty years after launch.  My first full-time job, when I ran out of money and had to drop out of college, was writing Voyager telemetry software at Jet Propulsion Labs in Pasadena.  I even received this cool certificate in the mail, some years later: a "Group Achievement Award," which simply means that I was part of a big group that did our jobs really well. 

I wish I could say that I did my job really well, but I was a not terribly mature 18 year old, and in retrospect, some of the telemetry filtering software I wrote in Univac 1530 assembly language wasn't very good.  Of course, if you knew much about Univac 1530 assembly language, you would wonder if anyone could write it well.

It was a fascinating experience.  I was an amateur astronomer, so working on a space mission was so cool.  I was just a kid (I turned 19 while I was working there), and in retrospect, as neat as the job was, it was about as miserable a time as I think I have ever experienced.  Friday nights, I would buy a pizza at Straw Hat in La Crescenta, drive up to an overlook on the Angeles Crest Higway, and have myself a good cry.


  1. It's called "growing up" and it's a rite of passage. We all had those times. I think that we're doing our kids a great disservice if we're not strong enough to let them experience the same emotions.

    Unfortunately, many folks are not strong enough to let their adult children struggle with those things. It's a shame.

  2. I lived in La Crescenta until I was 11 years old, when my parents moved to Idaho. We used to camp in the Angeles Crest forest and go up to Mt Wilson observatory quite often. Memories.

  3. What exactly was miserable about it?

    Too many hours? Low pay? Frustrating tools?

    BTW, I'm amazed that NASA would employ a no-degree teenager to build software for a probe, or that they would leave an entire subsystem in anyone's hands, much less a Kid's.

    (My understanding is that NASA has always been very cautious and careful about software for spacecraft. Double and triple checking of all development is a lot cheaper than writing off a mission because of a bug.)

  4. I was single, far younger than anyone else, and while in some ways I was a pretty typical 18 year old, in a lot of ways I wasn't. Most girls my age were looking for bad boys--and I definitely wasn't.

  5. "BTW, I'm amazed that NASA would employ a no-degree teenager to build software for a probe, or that they would leave an entire subsystem in anyone's hands, much less a Kid's."

    There were a number of non-degreed sorts there, working for contractors who actually did the bulk of the work of developing software for JPL. There were some others who were 21 and 22. I actually became good friends with another contractor who was also non-degreed, going progressively deaf (Ozark Mountain inbreeding problem), and one of the smartest people that I have ever met. What can you say about someone who delights in being able to write a Sieve of Eratosthenes program in seven characters of APL?

    After we both discovered that Mensa wasn't particularly useful for finding young ladies (because they were outnumbered by single men about 40:1), he applied for--and qualified to join 4 Sigma. As the name implies: four standard deviations above the norm in intelligence.

  6. Hey, a dude that drives a red Corvette has gotta be a little bit "bad" doesn't he?

  7. Yeah, but not as bad as the one with the license plate that reads "H2OGATE".

    When I was in college I did a couple of 6-month stints at RCA Surface and Missile Radar doing 8051 assembler for little modules in some radar systems. I ended up getting a totally unrelated degree but the experience helped me have a career that included Apple and Palm. Alas a career that died in 2001 and I have never been able to get back to.

  8. It was a whacky industry back then and there was more concern over what you could do than whether or not you were degreed.

    Best hardware engineer I knew didn't have a high school diploma.

  9. When I say, "bad" I mean the kind of guy that mistreats women, emotionally, verbally, physically. And I didn't smoke pot. Between those two limitations, I was pretty out of luck with women my age at the time. I finally met the right woman (my wife of 30 years) by being in the right place: a Bible study. She used the word "cognizant" in a context where it was appropriate, and I said, "I must get to know this gal better."

  10. "...used the word 'cognizant'..."
    That is hilarious. Your criteria for the perfect mate must also have set you apart from most of the young ladies back then. I understand totally.

  11. Clayton, you've had a daughter, you know that the "bad boy" stage seems to be something just about every girl goes through about that age. It's dumb, it's self destructive, but it seems to be something in the female psyche. I know my daughter's going through that "he's too nice" stage now.

    NASA hasn't changed much from those days. It's still the contractors who do the interesting work. I hated working there since it was almost impossible to do the interesting work, you just got stuck doing what was essentially program management. Kind of a waste of your years of graduate school. Still, it's pretty cool when you can tell your kids that you've got some things in orbit. I've even gotten out the binoculars to show the kids them!

  12. "Clayton, you've had a daughter, you know that the "bad boy" stage seems to be something just about every girl goes through about that age."

    Yup. I wish I understood it--so it could be fixed! The mass media certainly reinforce it, but it is definitely a problem that goes back for centuries. My wife tells me that this is a theme of Restoration period comedies and novels.