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NASA's most ambitious spacecraft ever is about as smart as your phone

Illustration for article titled NASAs most ambitious spacecraft ever is about as smart as your phone

NASA's Orion spacecraft is being heralded as the saving grace of restless, star-gazing pioneers everywhere. And for good reason! It's the first real attempt in decades at pushing human space travel to its furthest possible limits. And what feat of engineering is powering this manifestation of mankind's greatest ambitions? An obsolete processor circa 2002.

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Of course, NASA's used to dealing with parts well past their prime, but Orion's isn't just a matter of circumstance. The well-worn tech actually contributes to the whole project's potential success rate. Computer World explains:

"The processors are obsolete already but they have the property of just getting upset by radiation, instead of being permanently damaged," said [Matt Lemke, NASA's deputy manager for Orion's avionic], noting that NASA has been using the processors for more than 10 years. "You could do it with something newer, but all the engineering that would go into making it work right would make it a lot more expensive for us to build it."

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Because the deep-space vessel will be getting pummeled by so much radiation for such an extended period of time (particularly when it flies through an area known as the Van Allae belt), the sturdier its systems can be the better. As Lemke went on to tell Computer World:

[Orion is still] much more capable than the space station or more capable than what the shuttles were. It's state-of-the-art compared to that ,but it's not state-of-the-art compared to what you can get at Best Buy.

But what you get at Best Buy doesn't need to withstand the extreme vibrations of launch, the vacuum of space with wide temperature swings and then come back to Earth with lots of pyrotechnics and thousands and thousands of Gs of shock and then land in the water and potentially be submerged — and still operate.

In other words, if all goes according to plan, mankind will be heading to Mars sometime in the 2030s on the back IBM's tried-and-true PowerPC 750FX processors—the same single-core processors that first came out once upon a 2002. And it's all the better for it. [Computer World]

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DISCUSSION

This is a big step up for NASA. The Apollo Guidance Computer that landed Neal and Buzz on the moon was a 16 bit, 2MHz machine with 2K of RAM and 36K of ROM, configured as "core rope memory". Magnetic beads were strung on a rope of wires; it recorded a 1 if the wire passed through core, 0 if it didn't. They were made by hand by little old ladies in Cambridge. In fact they were known as LOL memory, for Little Old Lady - true story.