World’s Greatest Explorers? Guess What? They Are Not Even Human

Who is the greatest explorer in human history? Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, Captain James Cook?

You might be surprised to learn that the world’s greatest explorer is a machine built by NASA.

Make that two machines.

Mind you, not just any machines. A pair of machines that defied prediction, expectation and what was thought to be their own limitations.

Machines that can almost think for themselves, work tirelessly without sleep or rest. Going bravely where no one has ever gone. Time and space machines in the truest sense.

The Universe is a pretty big place. But two space probes, each of them the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, made it just that little bit smaller and all of us, small as well.

Voyager 1 and 2, launched in August of 1977, were tasked with taking colour photographs and measurements of Jupiter and Saturn. But these two spacecraft were never destined to be ordinary, whatever they might have achieved. Fifteen hundred engineers worked for five years to build them at a cost of $200 million. Of course if they managed to run rings around Saturn and Jupiter, pardon the pun,  they would be pressed onward into uncharted territory. Very uncharted territory.

In the beginning, after launch, both Voyagers performed flawlessly. But the budget for their mission was always tight. The Voyagers needed 200 engineers working full time to shepherd both craft to their destination. Instead, what they got was a kind of dumping ground for new University graduates who suddenly had the responsibility of controlling some of the most sophisticated state of the art electronics at that time.

According to Murphy’s law, anything that can go wrong, will. In April 1978, Voyager 1, not even half way to Jupiter, experienced a major meltdown. Its scan platform, for mounting all of its cameras and instruments, became jammed. While engineers tried to figure out what they could do to fix it, from more than 100 million miles away, someone forgot to send a weekly command to reset a timer on Voyager 2.

When they built the two Voyagers, engineers gave them attitude and some personality. When Voyager 2 didn’t hear from any human, it did what it was programmed to do. The spacecraft triggered its protection software, 600 lines of coded information that respond to malfunctions automatically.

In this instance, Voyager 2 assumed that its radio receiver was broken and switched to the backup. Meanwhile, back on earth, the engineers realised they made an error and tried to stop the fault protection routine. But the newly awakened backup receiver would not register their command. Their only hope was that the spacecraft would eventually reason its way back out of its predicament. To their astonishment, the main receiver did precisely that, only to suffer an electrical short out.

But like all well made pieces of ancient artificial intelligence, Voyager 2 refused to die. The engineers figured out that Voyager 2’s malfunctioning backup receiver ( the one that worked) still had an electrical pulse. But its problem was the tyranny of distance from earth. Voyager 2 struggled to recognise commands. So the engineers re-calibrated their signal, manually subtracting the Doppler effect on the passage of radio waves  and tried sending it to Voyager 2 who ( I like to think of the Voyagers as people)  completely understood and began functioning normally again. But to this day, that same complicated calculation must precede every command sent to Voyager 2.

At the present time, the two Voyagers, after conquering Saturn and Jupiter and sending back never seen before images from both planets. are 10 billion and 13 billion miles respectively from earth. The farthest that any man made object has travelled. This month is the 40th anniversary of the Voyagers launch. And still they fly on. To get a full appreciation of what that means, you need a brief lesson in astro physics. Space might appear to be vacant, but in fact it’s matter created by the explosion of ancient stars.

Within the neighbourhood of planet Earth, our bit of space has different particles from elsewhere because of the supersonic winds that blow from the surface of the Sun. The winds generate a bubble around our solar system, called a heliosphere. Five years ago, Voyager 1 reached the boundary of where the heliosphere gives way to interstellar space. It is a region as new to us as the Pacific was to the Europeans five hundred years ago.

And while they are poised on the very doorstep of a new frontier, the Voyagers gather data that continues to challenge fundamental physics and may provide clues to a couple of very big and important questions: Is the Sun only linked to the birth of life in our solar system? Where else are we most likely to find evidence that we are not alone?

The two Voyagers are true stellar explorers, who earned the title of making mankind’s greatest journey. Most of their flight crew, remained on the program almost from the beginning. Why would you leave? They’ve shared in the glory of being the world’s greatest living explorers. They are almost certainly the only people in the world who can still operate the Voyagers archaic onboard computers. To give some idea of what they are dealing with, these computers have 235 thousand times less memory and 175 thousand times less speed than a 16 gigabyte smartphone. And while the nine member flight crew, strictly speaking, haven’t gone anywhere themselves, their work is no less arduous than any 15th century European explorer. Magellan never had to steer his ship from the confines of a rented office nor did he stay at the helm long enough to qualify for a senior discount at the McDonald’s burger joint next door.

The flight crew’s fluency in grossly out of date computer language. becomes more and more crucial with the passage of time. As the Voyagers continue to keep on keeping on and harvest data, they are finally running out of fuel. Decaying plutonium is their power supply. By 2030 they will not have enough power to run a single experiment. We can only hope their flight crew, who are fast approaching retirement age, if they aren’t there already, live long enough to squeeze out every last available watt. We wouldn’t want to miss out on anything that might be discovered, and neither would they.

Airlines Find New Ways To Torture Passengers With Economy Minus Seating

Everything is shrinking. Have you noticed? We can go from one side of the world to the other in an instant. Skype or email, you can reach anyone, anywhere with the click of a mouse or the tap of a keyboard. And it’s not limited to the virtual world. You can stick a pin in a map of any country and be there within hours. That is unprecedented in human history. But if you think this is a plug for the world’s major, or even minor, airlines think again.

It ain’t.

Airline travel has never been more affordable, more frequent, more readily available and more undesirable. Everything the world’s airlines do these days has, what I call, a perverse inversibility. The more they offer in travel destinations, the less you receive in customer service and creature comfort. Whoever said there’s no such thing as a free ride wasn’t kidding. Here are some examples. You think you’ve locked in the final price for your airfare, only to be told it’s going to cost extra should you want to choose your seat. From baggage fees to credit card surcharges, it’s just one more extra fee, airlines are slugging customers, to bring in an extra dollar.

Choosing your seat on a Qantas domestic flight is free, but you’ll get stung big time on their international routes. Selecting a general seat will cost you $25. And for extra legroom make that $60. Qantas does  allow you to avoid paying the fee by offering free seat selection within 24 hours of flying, that is, of course, if you don’t mind taking pot luck on where you’ll end up sitting. How generous? A Qantas spokesperson had the temerity to suggest that seat selection fees were designed to avoid passenger disappointment.

Yeah right.

But Qantas isn’t the only Australian carrier loading on the fees. Jetstar automatically charges for seat selection unless you choose not to pay. Its booking system starts off by adding $5 to your fare for allowing you to choose your seat. And if you want a seat closer to the front it will cost you $11 and then it jumps to $24 for an exit row seat.

Virgin’s fee structure offers extra legroom seating from $20 to $70 for domestic and short haul international flights and a whopping $150 for long haul international flights. And it’s happening all over the world. In the United States, Delta, American Airlines, and low-cost carriers US Airways, Frontier, Spirit and Allegiant have introduced charges for “preferred seating”. In Europe, British Airways charges a seat selection fee and budget carrier Ryanair offers specific seats for an extra cost, as does its low-cost rival EasyJet.

So you can imagine my shock, horror and dismay, did I mention shock? When I read that airlines are planning to introduce a whole new level of flight hell called ‘economy minus.’ If you thought there couldn’t be anything worse than cattle class think again. Plans are afoot to sky test a new, even more cramped section in economy class, according to leaks published on an aviation website.

The “enhanced economy” section would have a seat pitch, which is the distance between your seat and the seat in front of you, of approximately 35 to 38 inches (88.9 — 96.5 centimetres). Regular economy would have a pitch of 76 to 78.7cm and the new “economy minus” at under 76cm — but the exact size, meaning how small, is yet to be confirmed.

But many airlines have already reconfigured their economy sections into similar models, they’re just not letting the travelling public know about it. Numerous airline seats already fall under the 76cm mark. And, you might be surprised to know, that all these teensy seats go against recommendations from plane manufacturer Boeing, which released its “magic formula” for leg room in economy class in 2001. The formula, was hailed at the time as the ultimate guide for leg room. It was based on calculations of how many cubic centimetres of leg, rear, end and shoulder space it takes to create a “tolerable” experience for passengers. Boeing calculated it at 81 cm.

Essentially, what we’ve come to know as the premium offering of “economy plus,”which isn’t quite business class, but less of a squeeze, is really just the equivalent of the economy class section from years ago and we thought that was bad enough at the time. The airlines refuse to advertise the fact that seats are continuing to shrink, and the standard economy section we used to know will soon be just a memory. In fact, these days airlines are stealing space from economy passengers to make their premium flyers more comfortable. For example, last year, one airline reduced economy passenger space by an inch (2.5cm) per row in order to give their “economy plus” flyers extra room.

The airlines are being very quiet about it all, but passengers are noticing the difference. One airline passenger in the United States wrote about what she described as the space-stealing problem in a review of her United Airlines experience. This airline has already garnered a reputation for having an unofficial “economy minus” section with leg room of just 78cm on some of its planes — 16cm less than its premium passengers.

“We just ended a miserable flight, “ she wrote. “United’s ‘economy plus’ option, means that for a family not able to afford to upgrade, you are now put in the ‘economy minus’ seats — meaning the least leg room on any flight in living memory. It seems United gives the plus legroom to the economy plus, but then subtracts the legroom from the poor folks back in cattle class.”

Prepare yourself for the brave new world in airline travel.

Major airlines like Air New Zealand, Emirates, KLM and Air France managed to squeeze in a fourth seat in the middle of their Boeing 777 planes. And to add insult to injury they charge the same price as regular economy for a seat that’s narrower than most other airlines.

This is not good news in a world where people are getting bigger not smaller. Airline travel is fast becoming something to be endured rather than enjoyed.