Sysadmin crashed computer recording data from active space probe

‘I’m the reason we missed seeing aliens’, jokes nervous reader

By Simon Sharwood


Who, me? Welcome again to Who, Me? The Register’s new column* in which readers confess to times they performed sub-optimally and broke important stuff.

This week, meet “Fred”, who begged us “Oh God, please don't use my real name or contact info.”

Fred’s desire for anonymity stems from the fact that in the late 1970s he worked for a Very, Very Famous Space Agency on two Very, Very High Profile Space Probes.

And he broke one for a few minutes.

“My primary job was repairing the computers controlling the spacecraft,” Fred explained. One of the missions he worked on “was winding down a bit so I was asked to remove some equipment from one of the rooms where its peripherals were stored.” Once the old stuff had been chucked, Fred would put in the new stuff for the more active mission

“The last thing to remove was an IBM 1403 printer. However, I was not familiar with its connectivity to the IBM 360 mainframe … but I proceeded to remove the two large cables attached at the bottom anyway and moved the printer out into the hallway.”

'The capacitors exploded, showering the lab in flaming confetti'


“Not a minute later one of my co-workers ran into the room yelling ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?’”

At this point in proceedings, Fred was unaware of any issues so explained what he’d been told to do.

He quickly received the news that whatever his instructions, implementing them had taken down the mission and it had missed three minutes of data from the spacecraft.

“When I repeat the story to some close friends, I usually end with ‘And that was the three minutes when the spacecraft found life on another planet."

Whatever knowledge humanity missed out on, Fred learned that “with IBM mainframe peripherals, you had to stop the computer and terminate the Bus and Tag cables before restarting, otherwise the system comes to a screeching halt.”

What have you brought to a screeching halt, and what happened afterwards? Click here to share your story with Who, me? and we might just be able to slot you in here on a future Monday morning. ®

* Who, me? is a companion piece to On-Call, our weekly story of tech support trauma caused by silly users, bilious bosses or incompetent colleagues. In Who, me? the joke’s on you, for having messed things up all by yourself.

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