The Story Behind "Titan Calling"

The Back Story

PHOTO: DAVID J. PHILLIP/AP

When James Oberg [right] suggested to IEEE Spectrum an article about how a knotty telecommunications problem was solved, we were interested for two reasons. First, the circumstances were unusual: they centered on a spectacular plunge by a probe known as Huygens into the soupy atmosphere of a moon 1.5 billion kilometers away.

Spectrum has always been interested in space exploration. Apart from its intrinsic fascination for many readers, it pushes technology's limits. And even when new technologies are not developed, operating spacecraft requires engineers to test the boundaries of their expertise, insight, and creativity. Second, we knew that Spectrum could tell the story best. When it was originally revealed that a communications screw-up threatened Huygens's mission, most reports glossed over the nature of the problem. Only by explaining what the snafu really was, how it snuck in, and how it was discovered and corrected, can useful lessons be drawn. By working with Oberg, we knew we could tell that story in a compelling way: he is a regular contributor to Spectrum and has spent decades working in and reporting on the space industry.

As the research for this article progressed, we discovered another reason to print it: the tale of an unsung hero, Boris Smeds. Without him, Huygens's mission would have continued in ignorance of the lurking communications problem—right up until disaster. Smeds's commitment to uncompromising engineering led him to battle bureaucracy and develop the tough test that unmasked the flaw. His engineering instinct and ability to improvise rooted out not just the flaw's existence, but its proximate cause. Smeds's example of what it means to be a great engineer is the most compelling lesson of all.

Advertisement
Advertisement