The Space Mission That Almost Wasn’t

By on October 22, 2004

SlashDot points us to a fascinating article on how Swedish engineer Boris Smeds saved the Huygens Probe from certain failure during its upcoming landing early next year.

[…] it was quite a shock when Boris Smeds, a graying, Swedish, 26-year ESA veteran [see photo, “Unsung Hero”], who normally specializes in solving problems related to the agency’s network of ground stations, discovered in early 2000 that Cassini’s receiver was in danger of scrambling Huygens’s data beyond recognition.

Making that discovery would lead Smeds from his desk in Darmstadt, Germany, to an antenna farm deep in California’s Mojave Desert, after he and his allies battled bureaucracy and disbelief to push through a test program tough enough to reveal the existence of Cassini-Huygens’s communications problem. In doing so, Smeds continued a glorious engineering tradition of rescuing deep-space missions from doom with sheer persistence, insight, and lots of improvisation.

A great article that goes into great technical detail about the problem and details the nerd fight that later ensued.

One of the investigators later put it best:

“We have a technical term for what went wrong here,” one of Huygens’s principal investigators, John Zarnecki of Britain’s Open University, would later explain to reporters: “It’s called a cock-up.”