The John Griff column: When ET's call home nearly didn't ring...

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If you’re of a certain age, last week might have provided a moment of other-worldly interest in an otherwise rather dour year. Did you ever follow the voyages of the starship ‘Enterprise’?

No, I don’t mean the proof-of-concept NASA shuttle orbiter which was built without engines and destined to piggy-back on a Boeing 747 for drop-testing as the world’s heaviest model glider in the mid-70s. Instead, I mean the spaceship which propelled Kirk, Spock, Bones, Uhuru et al to the farthest flung corners of the galaxy – boldly going each week where on-one had gone before and jousting with jeopardy as TV viewers tuned in for their regular fix of outer space. The original series ran between 1966 and 1969, ending just a fortnight before Neil Armstrong stepped down the ladder of the Eagle spacecraft onto the surface of the moon for real on 20th July 1969, making JFK’s science-fiction challenge, science-fact. By then though, in the 23rd century, Enterprise had already clocked up the light years with rather more rapidity – and usually at Warp Factor 10.

After the original tv series ended, a series of spin-off series continued the franchise, whilst in 1979 the first in an, as yet unfinished canon of full-length movies, was released. The imaginatively entitled ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ saw the original but by now somewhat aged cast brought together to go boldly once more –in this instance to hunt down the sinister and earth-threatening ‘V’Ger’. All good stuff – but movie story had a reasonably large grain of truth in it, because ‘V’Ger’ originally saw its genesis (true Trekkies will love that line) in NASA’s very real Voyager spacecraft programme. V’Ger was the corrupted on-screen name of the fictitious Voyager 6. In reality NASA’s programme extended to just two Voyager craft which, in 1977 blasted off. Remarkably, both are still in service to this day. Truly going boldly where no-one has gone before – and won’t for a very long time to come – the craft are now more than twelve billion mind boggling miles from Earth.

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Twelve billion miles – that’s 12,000,000,000 miles. It‘s a lot of noughts – and a considerable distance when it comes to maintaining connection between Earth and a spacecraft roughly the same size as a family SUV. Dominated by a dish shaped antenna about four metres wide, signals between here and there take just over a day and a half to make the round trip, despite travelling at the speed of light – or slightly more than 186,000 miles per second. To stay in connection, the antenna has to stay positioned precisely in alignment with our small planet – and it is here that good, old fashioned human error played its bumbling part in severing that connection.

NASA got back in touch with Voyager by 'shouting' at it, from Camberra in AustraliaNASA got back in touch with Voyager by 'shouting' at it, from Camberra in Australia
NASA got back in touch with Voyager by 'shouting' at it, from Camberra in Australia

Someone with particularly gifted sausage fingers managed to send an instruction to the Voyager 2 spacecraft which pointed the antenna just 2 degrees out of alignment. It doesn’t look like much on paper – but as the crow flies (and generally they don’t fly particularly well in the vacuum of interstellar space), over twelve billion miles, the magnification of the error meant that Voyager’s messages home missed Earth altogether. Somehow, the boffins managed to confirm that the spacecraft itself was still functioning – they ‘heard’ an electronic ‘heartbeat’ across space, but then, maddeningly, they faced the challenge of making contact with the misaligned machine in order to bring Voyager’s antenna back into line again.

The solution proved to be a something sounding like a very low-tech procedure indeed. Put simply (because I am not gifted in such matters), they did as would have Basil Fawlty in his Torquay hotel to a recalcitrant food processor.

They shouted at it. But from Australia.

NASA’s ‘interstellar shout’ amounted to a blast of control data from Earth’s most powerful transmitter in Canberra – and then a long wait. True, there was a backup plan to simply leave the spacecraft to reset its antenna all by itself at a prescheduled self-servicing point in October this year – but for the Voyager team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory this would have been rather too fraught with the danger of losing the spacecraft altogether – and not a prospect they were prepared to play fast and loose over. In the event the interstellar shout did the trick and Voyager started trotting out all kinds of data in machine code to the effect of ‘Here I am, where on earth (literally) have you been over the past fortnight and a bit?’. Contact re-established, the 46 years of the mission to seek out and report information about the universe continues and looks as though it will go on for many more years to come. All of which means that Kirk and his crewmates can stand down and continue to enjoy their retirement, safe in the knowledge that the benign Voyager is a long way (a VERY long way) from becoming the potentially malevolent ‘V’Ger’ of Hollywood scriptwriters’ imaginations.

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If, dear reader, this story actually seems a little anticlimactic, think about the ability of mankind – or its experts in certain sectors – to wrangle a solution to a given problem through rational thought and level-headed reasoning. That Voyager’s antenna got out of alignment in the first place was down to simple human error – and accidents happen all the time. It follows, as logically as Mister Spock would have you believe – that putting an error right again is also down to human intervention. Sound familiar? It ought to – look at the three astronauts in the tin can that was Apollo 13 and whose lives were put in considerable jeopardy on the night of 13th April 1970, as the result of a human error when a faulty wiring loom caused an explosion in space. Rapid level-headed thinking brought the crew home safely home again from a distance of two hundred thousand miles – it might as well have been twelve billion to their families I suspect.

Artificial intelligence is all very well – but for now I prefer the intelligence of humans – for all their fallibility.

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