NASA’s Orion spacecraft is being heralded as the saving grace of restless, star-gazing pioneers everywhere. And for good reason! It’s the first real attempt in decades at pushing human space travel to its furthest possible limits. And what feat of engineering is powering this manifestation of mankind’s greatest ambitions? An obsolete processor circa 2002. Of course, NASA’s used to dealing with parts well past their prime, but Orion’s isn’t just a matter of circumstance. The well-worn tech actually contributes to the whole project’s potential success rate.
Orion, NASA’s next-generation deep space vehicle, is going to eventually fly to Mars – run by a computer that’s no smarter than your smartphone. Orion, whose launch this morning was delayed until at least Friday, doesn’t carry state-of-the-art computers and its processors are 12 years old — making them ancient in tech years. The spacecraft, according to one NASA engineer, is built to be rugged and reliable in the face of G forces, massive amounts of radiation and the other rigors of space. When a spacecraft is designed to carry humans into deep space, reliability is more important than using the latest and most powerful computers, said Matt Lemke, NASA’s deputy manager for Orion’s avionics, power and software team. “Compared to the [Intel] Core i5 in your laptop, it’s much slower — much less powerful,” Lemke told Computerworld. “It’s probably not any faster than your smartphone. But it’s not about the speed as much as the ruggedness and the reliability. I just need to make sure it will always work.”