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Think Fortran, assembly language programming is boring and useless? Tell that to the NASA Voyager team

Ancient code jocks needed to keep probe alive

Voyager mission logo

Updated If you thought Fortran and Cold War-era assembly language programming is pointless and purely for old-timers, guess again. NASA has found an engineer comfortable with the software to keep its old space-race-age systems ticking over.

In an interview with Popular Mechanics this month, the manager of NASA's Voyager program Suzanne Dodd said the retirement of the project's last original engineer left the space agency with a shortage of people capable of communicating with the 40-year-old craft.

Launched in 1977, the two Voyager crafts rely on mid-1970s hardware controlled by purpose-built General Electric interrupt-driven processors. After 38 years in space, the two probes are on the outer fringes of the Sun's influence, heading into interstellar space.

Though most of the instruments onboard the two probes have been deactivated, both are still able to maintain contact with Earth and will continue to do so into the 2020s, until their onboard radioisotope thermoelectric generators no longer function.

In the meantime, there's still a need for engineers capable of interacting with the 1970s-era technology, a skill set that includes knowledge of both Fortran and assembly as well as the ability to command a machine with just 64KB of memory.

"Although, some people can program in an assembly language and understand the intricacy of the spacecraft, most younger people can't or really don't want to," Dodd was quoted as saying.

With high-level languages now the standard for developers, knowing how to fluently code in assembly has become a specialized skill, as has fluency in dated languages such as Fortran. While obscure, the skill set is potentially lucrative. Along with NASA's aging fleet of spacecraft, many businesses still rely on ancient languages such as Fortran or COBOL for specialized tasks and critical infrastructure.

According to CNN, 80-year-old Larry Zottarelli is retiring from NASA next year, and he is the last original Voyager probe engineer. He will be replaced by a younger engineer, who has spent a year learning the ropes, we're told, proving that knowing a little bit about yesterday's technology can go a long way into the future. ®

Editor's note: This story was revised after publication to make clear that NASA has found a replacement for Zottarelli, and is not hiring to fill his role. If you're adept at Fortran and mathematics, the agency would love to hear from you, though.

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