Friday, September 13, 2013

Something That I Worked On Is Now Interstellar

September 12, 2013 The Atlantic reports on Voyager 1 reaching interstellar space.  I wrote software for a very small part of this project -- but it is still one of the more long-term activities of my life.

UPDATE: A commenter asked for some detail on my involvement with this project.  It is one of the weird little parts of my life.  During my first year of college at USC, I was frantically looking for a part-time job so that I could stay in school.  Tuition was not a problem: the combination of the California State Scholarship and financial assistance from USC covered the entire $2910 annual bill.  (Yes, and pterodactyls still roamed the skies.)  Books were not too bad -- typically about $300 a year.

The problem was that I needed enough money to cover my rent, groceries, utilities, and gasoline to drive my heap of a 1964 Chevrolet Malibu station wagon back and forth to USC.  I received a modest $200 or so a month check from Social Security as a college student dependent on a disabled parent.  That was not quite enough to cover the bills.  It was close.

But unskilled jobs were in short supply.  It was 1975, and the economy was in some respects as bad as it is today.  I could not get a job flipping burgers, or any other unskilled job.  Nothing was available in the Santa Monica/West Los Angeles area where I lived.

Suddenly, a full-time job opened up with the school district.  They needed a computer geek, and I thought: Hey, the first semester was really easy: easy A in English, freshman chemistry, Introduction to Film, and a B in first semester calculus.  (This was the hard calculus sequence for physical science majors.)  So I took the full-time job...and attended school full-time second semester.  And this was not easy.  In fact, after two months of doing this, I concluded that it was not practical to define database requirements eight hours a day (and partly at night) and take classes mostly in the daytime at USC.  So I quit the day job.

And I forgot that the Social Security check would be cut off as soon as they saw that I was earning a decent wage.  But by the time that happened, it was June, and it was impossible to get it turned back on, now that I no longer had that full-time job, so the need to find some sort of job was that much more severe.  And all summer long: Jack-in-the-Box?  McDonald's?  I even applied for a job as a projectionist at an adult movie theater.  (No, I had not been in audio-visual club in high school, so I had no idea how to run a projector, but I was sure that I could learn.)

Time was getting short, but it turned out that while I lacked the skills and capabilities to flip burgers, there was one job that I could get at 18: Jet Propulsion Labs.  On Monday, I saw a newspaper ad by Telos Computing, one of the companies with a contract to supply software engineers to JPL.  I sent my resume.  Wednesday they had me come into the office in Santa Monica.   That afternoon, I drove out to JPL in my incredibly 1970s powder blue leisure suit, and Friday, they called me, and told me to start work at JPL on Monday.  I was paid $1200 a month, mostly because that is what I asked for, and I was even then a pretty articulate if nerdy and introverted sort.

I wrote software for the near-real-time telemetry processing system for what was then called the Mariner Jupiter-Saturn project (MJS), but was later renamed to Voyager.  It was a really cool experience.  When they hired me, I do not think I was qualified to do the job; by the time they fired me, almost a year later, I actually was qualified to do the job -- and it certainly opened many doors for me in later years.


  1. Congratulations! We always remember the big projects we were part of, even if we were a small part. Been there, doing that. I keep an eye on Voyager too. I wonder about Pioneer as well. thank you for your work.

  2. Awesome! Can you tell us a little about it?

  3. That's cool. I wish I had my name, even a little bit, on something like this. Everything I've done in my career so far has been a failure :)

    I'm hoping to change that, but I seem to have a knack for picking risky adventures that go nowhere.

  4. I'd also add that it'll be really cool once the machine civilization finds it and then brings it back to earth looking for the creator!