The Most Amazing Example of "Rugged and Reliable" You Will Ever Find

I purchased Aquametrix over 3 years ago because of the reputation of the company for making probes that, as we like to say, are "rugged and reliable." That claim is still central to our marketing message. I believe it to be more true today than it was 3 years ago but I'm also the first to say that no product shines in every possible use and ours are no exceptions.

I love reading about products that continue to work year after year with little fanfare and I believe I've found the best example. It's a personal example as well because, for 8 years, I worked as a NASA scientist at the Ames Research Center in California. I started two years after the Challenger disaster and one year before NASA discovered that the Hubble Space Telescope was "near sighted" due to an error grinding the primary mirror. During those years the press loved picking on NASA whenever possible. To be truthful even NASA employees bemoaned the layers of bureaucracy that grew after the wild can-do years of the the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo era.

And yet, year after year and decade after decade, NASA has built incredibly sophisticated pieces of technology that worked incredibly well. Here are two cases in point that you probably won't find in the newspaper:

The first is Opportunity. That's the name of the first robotic vehicle that blasted off from earth toward Mars 10 years ago last month. We were astonished when it plunged through the atmosphere, bounced its way to a landing and deployed flawlessly as if it were gently set down by the hand of God. Opportunity has found evidence of water, analyzed the chemistry of its rocks and explored its atmosphere. And it was only supposed to last one year. One decade later it is still going strong. It is now uncovering more evidence of liquid water—including taking pH measurements! Opportunity has lasted more than ten times longer than promised.

But 10 years for an unmanned vehicle is but a speck in the fabric of time for NASA. Where were you in 1977? I was a junior at the University of Pennsylvania and Gerald Ford was President. That's when NASA launched Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2. Remember those cool pictures of Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus? Here's a reminder:

Jupiter and Moons.jpg

The probes were only supposed to survey our planets.But they kept going.... and going. Voyager 2 is now 9 billion miles from the sun and Voyager 1 is 11 billion miles away. These spacecraft, contain less computing power than a cheap cellphone but the computer algorithms that operate them are sophisticated by even today's standards. Their guidance systems are so fine tuned that their trajectories are the equivalent of sinking a putt from 2260 miles away. Their transmitters broadcast a puny 23 watts and it takes 10 hours for their radio signals to reach us. Thanks to their perfect alignment with earth we will continue to receive signals until they run out of fuel about 2025.

Voyager 1 is now on the verge escaping the solar system completely and entering interstellar space. If you want to be totally amazed at what a group of civil servants pulled off before many of you were born check out: http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/didyouknow.html.

For me, "rugged and reliable" brings on a whole new meaning. It's a journey and will never be a destination. Voyager humbles me into knowing just how long that journey is.