Back in those days, I worked in JPL’s (the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, CA) Space Flight Operations Facility (SFOF) which included the Mission Control and Command Center (MCCC) for the Voyager spacecraft during the encounters at Jupiter and Saturn. JPL’s SFOF was responsible for running many of NASA’s deep space probes, which included the later Galileo mission, as well as (among many others) Juno and Osiris. But back then, it was all Voyager. For my part, I was one of the maintenance crew working the ground telemetry systems, the computers and attendant hardware used for receiving, spooling, and initial processing of all the data from V1 and V2.

Our areas of responsibility included not only the SFOF and MCCC, but also some satellite science monitoring stations, and the navigation systems. Navigation was just that: at various moments in the Voyager missions, the cameras would be pointed at known positions and pictures would be taken, of stars or moons (depending on how near or far the probes were from one of the gas giants). These pictures would then be examined and compared with what was known ought to be in those pictures, and then compared with where those things ought to be. Translating “is” to “ought” and then back again, rather like a sailor “shooting” the stars with an octant, the spacecraft were kept on course in this manner. The precision with which this was achieved has been compared to threading a needle in New York with a thread in Los Angeles on a single toss of that thread.

Navigation itself consisted of a somewhat more “muscular” Modcomp computeri, which is to say, it was physically larger and had more computing power than the typical telemetry processing computer over at MCCC, one 9-track tape drive, a couple of modular/removable disk drives, two printers (one big, one small), a terminal with a monitor, and some desk space. It was located in an isolated room without any windows in a different building from all the other units. There was exactly one person working in Navigation, and that was the person in charge of it: Linda Morabito.

Ms. Morabito (at the time her highest academic degree was graduate work in Computer Science, though she held a BS in Astronomy) stood out as a remarkably diminutive person. But while I never knew her personally, our interactions were always pleasant and professional (which was not always the case with all the other members of the Voyager team.) While I’m not a great enthusiast of the cubicle style of work space, I found the Navigation center a less than pleasant physical environment. It was well lit, and the paint job (at least) was not the sickly institutional green that seems to be favored by prisons, insane asylums, dank basements, and other centers of torture. I do not recall any signs of personalizing that space, but that is hardly evidence that there was none; I was never particularly observant of such things in my younger years. In any event. I’ve no idea how she managed to function and prosper in such a space, but to all appearances she managed to do so.

In any event, it was in this space that she saw something that shouldn’t have been there.

It was during Voyager 1’s encounter at Jupiter, and she’d been granted time in the schedule (this was actually from years earlier, mind you) to use some of the spacecraft’s limited time, camera availability, and data bandwidth, to take some navigational shots. The important one was over the limb of Jupiter’s moon Io, to get a fix on stars that were known would be in the background (providing everything was where they were supposed to be.) But the photo was screwed up; there was an arcing blur right over the limb of the moon when there should have been nothing but clear, empty space. She did her due-diligence, and clawed her way through reams of data until she’d confirmed beyond the absolute possibility of doubt that it was not an error in the data stream or an artifact in the camera. It became clear it was something else, something which, up until that very moment was all but unthinkable.

It was a volcanic eruption on Io.

Much wringing of hands and thumping of chests ensued. Among the stand out claims was the lame attempt to dismiss Ms. Morabito’s discovery as just “dumb luck.” But that is all most discoveries are; except the luck is all a matter of preparation meeting opportunity. It was pure “dumb luck” that Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered pulsars, because she “just happened” to be the one tasked with clawing through all that raw data, and then isolating the significant parts, and then identifying them for what they really were. Just like Linda Morabito. The discovery became hers and hers alone, a brilliant piece of absolutely ruthless commitment to the details and a refusal to accept any conclusion until all other possibilities had been thoroughly excluded.

Some time later, I was down in her shop doing some maintenance on some piece or other of the equipment there; my memory is that it was the smaller of the two printers, but that is unimportant. This time, someone else was in her windowless cave on the universe with her. I’m 6’1”, but have always tended to stoop, and this fellow was clearly taller than I. Given Ms Morabito’s frame, the difference between the two really stood out. They politely ignored me as they went on with their conversation, and I was professional enough not to try and interject myself. But it was clear enough who it was and what they were talking about.

Carl Sagan was discussing the preliminary details of her segment – yet to be filmed – for his upcoming Cosmos miniseries.

So, it is not as though I can claim to have even met the man, having gotten no further than merely being in the same small room as he was. Still, it is a story the likes of which not many others can tell.

Eventually, I left my position at JPL.ii I was witnessing a creeping rot in the attention to detail around the development of new projects at the time, and became increasingly stressed at the thought of participating in a gratuitous and unnecessary failure in a program I had loved since I was old enough to have memories of my own. (The first thing I ever wanted to be was an astronaut.) I did not expect that rot to make itself manifest with the explosion of the Challenger. But even as I was screaming in rage within the confines of my car, driving north on the 101 into San Francisco, no amount of denial could hide the fact that I was not surprised.

Sometimes, the good guys lose.

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i Modcomp computers were designed to be used in special purpose applications, with an eye toward high reliability rather than cutting edge technology. Thus the technology was all TTL integrated circuitry which, even in the very early 1980’s, was way behind the curve in terms of what was coming out from IBM and the brand new Apple corp. at the time. (Personal computers were built around CMOS devices at that time.)

ii I should perhaps mention that I did not work for JPL or NASA directly. Rather I worked for the private company that was contracted by JPL to handle the maintenance of the equipment in the SFOF and surrounds.