TikTok on the Clock, Tesla’s Flop Era and How NASA Fixed a ’70s-Era Space Computer

This transcript was created using speech recognition software. While it has been reviewed by human transcribers, it may contain errors. Please review the episode audio before quoting from this transcript and email transcripts@nytimes.com with any questions.

casey newton

Um, what’s going on with you? Um, well, Tommy Vietor from “Pod Save America” used AI to write a new theme song for our show.

kevin roose

Oh, boy.

casey newton

He used this tool called udio.com.

kevin roose

Udio, yes. Yes, it’s like “audio” but without the “A.”

casey newton

It’s like “audio” without “A.”

kevin roose

They took the “A” put it into “AI.”

casey newton

That’s — (LAUGHING) Sure, why not. And, uh, Tommy kind of messed around. And you know, we just had the music episode of the show, and so I think “Hard Fork” music is on a lot of listeners’ minds.

kevin roose

Yeah.

casey newton

And Tommy took the initiative to write a new “Hard Fork” theme song that was then performed by an artificial intelligence.

kevin roose

“Write” is generous. He typed some words into a box.

casey newton

We don’t know exactly everything about Tommy’s creative process, but suffice to say that I was very impressed with the result.

kevin roose

Well, let’s play it.

casey newton

OK, let’s play it.

kevin roose

Got me a book. Got me a knife. Find my iPhone. Find me a wife.

casey newton

It really picks up toward the end here.

[music playing]

Hard fork, hard fork

Need to find some place to stick my hard fork, hard fork

casey newton

It’s really good! Isn’t it good?

kevin roose

Yeah. It’s giving, like, ‘90s sitcom.

casey newton

I was — ‘90s sitcom is good. I would also say, sort of, like Wildflowers-era Tom Petty is what it made me think of.

kevin roose

Yes.

casey newton

Yeah, so if we ever get tired of the current “Hard Fork” theme song, we have a great backup.

kevin roose

Wow, thank you, Tommy.

casey newton

Thank you, Tommy.

kevin roose

You will be hearing from our lawyers.

I’m Kevin Roose, a tech columnist at “The New York Times.”

casey newton

I’m Casey Newton from “Platformer.”

kevin roose

And this is “Hard Fork.”

casey newton

This week, TikTok on the rocks and the party do stop? We’ll tell you what happens now that ByteDance may be forced to sell it. Then, how Tesla entered its flop era, and finally, NASA engineer Todd Barber joins to explain how they fixed a 47-year-old computer that was 15 billion miles away.

kevin roose

Casey, big week in the tech news.

casey newton

That’s right. Kevin, there’s a clock that’s ticking on one of America’s most popular apps.

kevin roose

Yes. So this week, the so-called TikTok ban, the bill that would force TikTok to be sold by its Chinese owner, ByteDance, or else be banned from app stores in the United States, sailed through both Houses of Congress and was signed into law by President Biden. This is a pretty stunning development. I know you and I had both been sort of speculating about whether this would happen. Then a few weeks ago, we did a show where we were like, maybe this TikTok ban is not going to happen. Now, it’s happening.

casey newton

That’s right. I think what happened was, Congress listened to our episode, and they said, you know, we really got to get something done, or those two knuckleheads are going to give us grief for it.

kevin roose

That’s true.

casey newton

Yeah. And let us say, not only is this interesting on its own terms, Kevin. Since the broader backlash against social media began at the end of 2016, Congress has not passed one bill attempting to regulate tech in any way.

kevin roose

Yes, this is a huge moment not just for TikTok and people who use the app and depend on the app, but also for the American tech industry and, I would say, for America in general. It is very surprising that this thing passed, especially as quickly as it did. As we know, Congress is not known for taking quick or decisive action when it comes to regulating technology companies.

casey newton

Or really any action at all.

kevin roose

Exactly. Exactly. And it also just raises a whole bunch of questions. But I think, first, we should just talk about how we got here. Like, what the heck happened? Because for a while, it looked like this effort to force a sale of TikTok was dead in the water. It had stalled out in the Senate.

And then all of a sudden, it has sailed through in a way that’s sort of interesting. So let’s talk about the backstory here. So my colleagues at “The New York Times,” Sapna Maheshwari, David McCabe, and Cecilia Kang, had a great story this week about how this bill became a law.

Basically, about a year ago, this small group of lawmakers came up with this plan to force a sale of TikTok. And they didn’t want this to get a bunch of attention. They didn’t want lobbyists at TikTok to start agitating against it. So they kept this very quiet.

In November, this group brought in officials from the Justice Department, according to this story, basically asking them, like, how can we craft this bill in a way that’s going to stand up to the inevitable legal challenges that TikTok and ByteDance are going to use to try to stop this? The bill, as we talked about a few weeks ago, passed through the House, and then it got stalled in the Senate.

And there was a lot of questioning about whether it was going to just die there. But last week, House Speaker Mike Johnson decided that he could basically package this bill with another set of bills that were popular with Republicans, including a critical foreign aid bill for countries including Israel and Ukraine.

So this new bill passes the House on Saturday. Then on Tuesday night, the Senate passed the bill — overwhelming majorities in both houses. And on Wednesday morning, President Biden signed it. So for now, it does appear that it’s all over for TikTok, at least in its current form, unless they do have a successful way of challenging this in court.

casey newton

Well, look. “Bloomberg” reported this week that the company has already told its employees it considers this bill a violation of the First Amendment. It does plan to fight it in courts. And it does have a strong chance, I think, in prevailing in court, for reasons that we can’t talk about.

But look, no matter what happens with the legal case, there is no denying that this is just a huge blow to the company, right? Think about what it does for their ability to retain their top talent, about their ability to recruit top talent — just the sort of day-to-day drumbeat in the background of, how many more months is this app going to exist? Is it going to get sold off?

That is just going to be a massive distraction for everyone working there. So while there’s still a lot we don’t know about what is going to happen, I think we do know that this is really a tough moment for TikTok.

kevin roose

Yeah. The obvious solution here would be for ByteDance to sell TikTok. There are any number of buyers that might emerge to take this off their hands. But ByteDance does not want to sell TikTok. It has made that very clear.

So putting aside for a second the question of, will ByteDance sell TikTok, does it want to sell TikTok, why doesn’t it want to sell TikTok, there is an actual legal question here. Because now, the next step is that this bill will almost certainly be challenged in court, and ByteDance and TikTok will do everything in their power to avoid having to divest.

So you’ve talked to some people this week who have feelings about the legality of this law and whether it’s going to stand up to challenges in court. So walk me through the basic arguments on both sides of the legal challenge here.

casey newton

So I talked to a guy named Alan Rozenshtein, who is a law professor at the University of Minnesota. And he was using very rough ballpark numbers. He said that maybe if you were to pull, like, 10 First Amendment professors, six or seven one of them would probably say this thing is unconstitutional and will get struck down, and maybe three or four would say it’s not going to get struck down.

But he also said that First Amendment cases tend to be very unpredictable in general. And we also, of course, now have a court that just respects precedents, I would say, a lot less than other Supreme courts in recent history.

kevin roose

So let’s lay out, just in a nutshell, like, the two arguments here. Because on the TikTok side, you have people saying this is a breach of the First Amendment. Just in a couple sentences, summarize that argument as the experts that you talked to are summarizing it.

casey newton

Sure. So for it to breach the First Amendment, what TikTok would need to show is that the government acted because it did not like the content on TikTok. And it will have a lot of evidence on that front. It will be able to point to many members of Congress talking about the spread of Chinese propaganda on the app. They will talk about the alleged suppression of pro-Israeli voices.

And they will be able to make, I think, a pretty effective case that Congress hated the content on TikTok, and that is a primary reason that it acted. You know, Kevin, one thing I learned when I reported the column that I wrote this week was that there’s been some interesting Supreme Court case law about the question of Chinese propaganda in the past.

Sometimes you just have to remind yourself, China is allowed to spread propaganda in the United States. There is a newspaper here, called “The People’s Daily,” that is supported by the Chinese government, that spreads Chinese propaganda, and it is freely available. Like, it is completely allowed under the First Amendment.

So the first thing that the government will have to show is that TikTok is wrong about this and that whatever just happened had nothing to do with the content on the app. And I do think it’s possible for the government to prove that. But that is the difficult first step.

kevin roose

And what is the government’s case here? How are they likely to make the argument in court that this is not a breach of the First Amendment and that they are allowed to force a sale of TikTok?

casey newton

They’re going to make two arguments. One is not that great, and one is probably going to lead to more success. The one that is not great is that this is a data security thing, right? That ByteDance has been maybe playing fast and loose with Americans’ data, that a Chinese company cannot be trusted with Americans’ data in this way.

It could be used for surveillance purposes something like that. And for that reason, Congress had to take action. It has nothing to do with whatever was on the For You Page. It is just about data.

The problem is that the solution is so severe, right? To come in and say, we are going to take these, honestly, somewhat vague data privacy concerns and say that that outweighs the speech of 170 million Americans who are using this app, I think the Supreme Court is just not likely to find very persuasive.

So that leaves the likely more successful argument, which is national security, right? Everyone, I think, is fairly worried about some sort of escalating conflict with China. And so the argument there is, this is simply too powerful a force.

This major information network is owned by a foreign adversary, and that poses extreme risk to the national security of the United States. That’s what the government is going to say. And so then I said to the scholars, well, how persuasive is that?

And what I was told was, look, the government can’t actually just come in and say, you have to ban this speech because of national security. Because if that worked, the government would just do that all the time. Right? My understanding of how this bill is likely to be evaluated, assuming it makes it to the Supreme Court, and assuming that the Supreme Court first buys the argument that this is not about content, is that TikTok will be subjected to what is called intermediate scrutiny. Right?

Strict scrutiny says, you’re probably going to lose this case, government, in a speech issue. Intermediate scrutiny says, you might win, you might lose.

kevin roose

Right, you’ve got to balance it.

casey newton

You got to balance it. But here’s the important thing. If you want to win a First Amendment case under intermediate scrutiny, you have to show your work. You have to make your case.

You can’t just stamp your feet and say, national security. You have to show me a national-security problem. And as best as I can understand, the national-security issues that are being raised here are mostly theoretical. They are about something that might happen in the future.

And so the question then becomes, How are the nine justices on the Supreme Court going to weigh the potential future conflict between the United States and China against the ongoing, active, everyday speech of 170 million Americans? And that just gets really hard to predict.

kevin roose

What I’m hearing you say — and let me repeat this back to you to make sure I have it — is that the scholars you talked to, the law professors, the various jurisprudential experts here, are saying, basically, the government can prevail here in court by demonstrating a legitimate national-security reason that has nothing to do with content to ban TikTok or to at least to force a sale, but that they will have to do what in law is called “bringing the receipts.”

casey newton

(LAUGHING) Yes.

kevin roose

They will have to show some proof that there is actually a national-security threat here, and people are somewhat skeptical that that bar will be cleared.

casey newton

That’s right. And again, the national-security threat cannot just be the spread of Chinese propaganda. I really want to underline that point. Because before we started writing this, I think I just sort of assumed that Congress might be able to take a position on that. But there is a pretty good case law that says that, no. In fact, in the ‘60s there was this case, Lamont versus Postmaster General.

kevin roose

Oh, I know this case.

casey newton

You know this case?

kevin roose

Yes.

casey newton

So just —

kevin roose

Lamont was a good friend of mine.

casey newton

(LAUGHING) Well, for the benefit of anyone who didn’t hear it, there was basically this thing where if you wanted to receive Communist propaganda in the mail, Congress said, OK, you can receive it, but we’re going to make the post office send you a little card, and you have to check a box that says, yes, I want to receive the evil Communist propaganda. Of course, the reason that Congress did this was to get people to stop receiving the Communist propaganda. The Supreme Court strikes it down. They say, no, even just asking people to a box is — goes too far in the direction of chilling speech, that this is a cherished American value, that the way that we fight speech here is with transparency and sunlight and counterspeech.

So again, that happened in 1965. There’s no telling what the current folks on the Supreme Court would do today. But if precedent is to play any role here, it would suggest that “Chinese propaganda is on TikTok” is not actually a national-security threat.

kevin roose

Wait, but I’m confused about this point. And this — we’re not a legal podcast. We should say that. Neither of us are lawyers.

casey newton

I feel like we’re sort of slowly becoming one. Am I doing OK?

kevin roose

You’re doing great. Yeah.

But, like, we have had laws on the books in this country since the 1930s that limit foreign ownership of US broadcast companies. The rules have been somewhat relaxed, but you still need permission from the federal government in order to buy a stake in a media company that has a presence in the United States. That has been a law on the books for almost 100 years. And so I think, for a lot of people that I’m talking to, they’re like, well, why would we not extend that same framework to new media companies like TikTok?

casey newton

I think this is a good argument. Like, this is probably the argument that I am most sympathetic to. But when I ask the scholars, essentially, has some foreign media company ever come in and challenged these foreign ownership rules on First Amendment grounds, the scholars that I spoke to weren’t aware of one.

So that was sort of interesting to me. I think, again, though, Kevin, a less draconian response here might be, Congress could say, we’re actually going to extend these foreign ownership rules to internet apps in some way. And you set up some sort of transparency system. It applies to every company at once, as opposed to this more targeted ban of an app that got too popular with the wrong people at the wrong time.

kevin roose

All right. So that’s the legal stuff. I think we should talk about what happens now and who the winners and losers of this are. So let’s talk about that a little bit. First of all, what is the Chinese response to this bill going to be? Because there’s going to be a response.

casey newton

Yeah. And I mean, they have basically said in no uncertain terms that they do not intend to let ByteDance sell the app. Even if they were able to reach some sort of deal, it seems unlikely that the recommendation algorithms or other core components of TikTok would not be sold to the buyer. You have to remember that TikTok is just the sort of international counterpart to a Chinese app called Douyin, and ByteDance is just going to keep operating that as normal. They’re not going to give away the store to someone else.

Now, that said, there is a lot of money on the table here. And if the United States ban is upheld, I can imagine a lot of other countries following suit. India has already banned TikTok, and things have basically been fine there.

So you know, ByteDance has a lot to lose here. But from what we know today, the suggestion from the Chinese government is that, no, they’re not going to let them sell this thing.

kevin roose

Well, not only are they going to fight this forced sale, but another story that happened involving China and US social media companies is that China has ordered Apple to remove a bunch of American-owned apps from the App Store in China. So last week, it forced Apple to take WhatsApp and Instagram Threads out of the App Store, as well as Signal and Telegram.

Now, we don’t know if this is sort of in direct response to what’s going on with TikTok in this bill. But it does seem like just one more piece of evidence that the kind of Chinese internet and the American internet — these things that have always had kind of a fragile coexistence — are now starting to separate even more.

casey newton

Yeah, it’s very true. And historically, America has been perhaps the top booster of a free and open internet, the sort of free exchange of views across borders. But that idea has just gotten pretty unpopular over the past decade or so, particularly with the concerns around social media.

And so the internet has been fragmenting into zones for a while. And one of the reasons why this story is such a big deal is, this is essentially that more splintered, fragmented version of the internet.

kevin roose

“The splinternet,” they’re calling it.

casey newton

They literally do call it that.

kevin roose

I know.

casey newton

OK. [LAUGHS]

kevin roose

No, and I think this is going to be one of the first major moves toward this more fragmented internet. We talked on this show a couple of weeks ago about what we thought about the TikTok ban. And I think we were both sort of tentatively in favor of it.

And one of the pieces of pushback I got from some people that I know who work in tech policy was like, it’s impossible to just stop at TikTok, right? There is no universe in which this stays confined to TikTok. This is going to result in more apps being banned by more countries for, sort of, vague national-security reasons.

The end game of all of this is kind of this balkanized internet, and nobody seems to want that. But I would say to that, we are already headed there. Like, this train has left the station. I think the era of the global internet platform is basically over.

casey newton

I mean, I think that is basically sad, you know. I think it’s good when people from different countries can freely communicate with each other. You know, I think the First Amendment is good.

And my fear here is that if this ban is upheld, once we’ve set the precedent that there is essentially an exemption from the First Amendment for foreigners, that that same Supreme Court, if they decide that they feel that way, is going to start finding other things that they don’t like about free speech and other people who they don’t think should be able to maybe speak as freely.

kevin roose

Yeah. So let’s talk about how we think this reshapes the social media landscape in the US. One thing that we’ve talked about before is, this is obviously, short-term, very good for Meta and for Google, which owns YouTube. Because these are the primary destinations for short-form video that are not TikTok.

I have to imagine that if this does proceed and if TikTok is gone from the US App Store, people aren’t just going to stop creating the short-form videos that go on TikTok. They’re just going to put them in other places. Maybe they will spend more time on these other apps. The number that has been sort of kicking around in my head this week is 97 minutes. Do you know what that is?

casey newton

That’s about how much longer I can stand to be in this room with you, so talk fast.

kevin roose

[CHUCKLES]:: So 97 minutes is the length of time that the average US TikTok user spends on the app per day, according to Apptopia data from late last year. And 97 minutes is the amount of time that is now up for grabs if TikTok is banned. That is time — as much as I would like to think that the youth of America, if they don’t have TikTok, will go back to reading books and solving math problems and —

casey newton

Volunteering down at the senior center?

kevin roose

Yes — what they are actually going to do in practice, I predict, is just spend that time on another app. Those 97 minutes are now up for grabs, and I think there’s not only going to be a big attempt by YouTube and Instagram and other apps to seize that time, but I think we’re going to see a wave of new homegrown startups that say, well, that’s 97 minutes that could belong to us if we make something compelling enough.

casey newton

I think that’s right.

kevin roose

Wait, Casey, can I ask you a question about this? A few weeks ago, when we were talking about the potential for a forced sale of TikTok, I think you and I were both sort of in agreement that this was probably on balance. There were some tradeoffs, but this was probably a good idea. Banning TikTok or forcing it to sell was probably in US national interests. Are you still there, or has your has your view shifted?

casey newton

I must admit, I’ve gone a bit wobbly on this. I think that as I have talked to more First Amendment scholars, I am increasingly concerned about this, and I’m not convinced that it is the best way for Congress to solve this problem. I don’t want to be the person that says, well, because this bill isn’t perfect, we should just do nothing forever, because that is what our Congress does. And I think it is generally bad. But the more that I sit with this, I just do worry about the ramifications of empowering Congress to start getting rid of social media apps, because I really do worry that TikTok will not be the last of them.

kevin roose

I think I’m still staying where I was a few weeks ago. I think there are obviously tradeoffs. I’ve been hearing from listeners, you know, critics, people who say, you’re wrong. I got some very good pushback from some lawyers, who said basically, like, the same things you’re saying, which is that we don’t want to create this sort of domino effect where, all of a sudden, we’re living in this world where the internet is sort of country by country and you lose this dream of the global town square.

But I do just find myself coming back to this thing about, well, we don’t let foreign investors take over broadcast networks without government approval. Why would we let a Chinese company build and profit from and run the largest social media app among young people in the United States? And furthermore, like, this is a company that has, again and again, misled the American public about the extent of its ties with China.

It has not been honest and forthright about how closely ByteDance controls that company. And we have just seen over and over again, even from former employees of TikTok, just saying, they are lying to us. They are telling you that they are an American outfit, that they are not controlled by Beijing, and then we just find out that actually, the ties run much deeper than anyone thought.

casey newton

I don’t know. I still feel like you’re kicking up a cloud of dust around what is essentially just, like, fairly standard tech platform behavior, which is bad. But in general, we don’t totally ban these enormous platforms just because their executives get slippery when you start asking them tough questions in Congress.

kevin roose

Yeah, I will say, to give a point to the skeptics, that the process here has been wild and not something that I think is a good thing. I do not think that these kind of bills should be jammed into foreign aid packages and passed, essentially, in the dead of night without much deliberation happening out in the open. I do not like how secretive this whole thing has been.

So I would say that I dislike the process by which this was arrived at. But I actually think, on balance, it is going to be a sort of neutral-to-good thing. And honestly, if TikTok is acquired by an American company and the app continues to exist, and the small businesses that rely on TikTok continue to be able to sell their stuff, I think that is the best possible outcome here. But I don’t think that is the most likely outcome.

casey newton

Let me say one more thing on process, which is this. We have something that is designed to regulate foreign investment in the United States — CFIUS, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. And for about five years now, they have supposedly been going back and forth with ByteDance about whatever they wanted.

That process has been conducted entirely in secret. CFIUS has never said one thing about what it asked ByteDance to do. It has never said that ByteDance refused to do it.

And I really wish we lived in a world where CFIUS was just empowered to get whatever it wanted, and then could talk about that. But instead, we had this bill that was rammed through. So I just think that’s unfortunate.

kevin roose

All right. Well, in summary, the ByteDance lobbyists got to Casey. He’s flipflopped on TikTok, whereas I remain a staunch defender of America’s national interests.

casey newton

Wow. Well, congratulations, Kevin.

kevin roose

There you have it.

casey newton

Congratulations for being closed-minded.

kevin roose

USA! USA! USA! When we come back, Tesla is in full self-driving mode.

casey newton

To hell!

kevin roose

Well, Casey, we talk a lot on this show about Elon Musk, usually in the context of various disasters unfolding at X, his social media company. But as it turns out, he runs more than one company. And one of Elon Musk’s other companies, Tesla, is having a rough time.

casey newton

Yeah, you know, I, for my own part, am mostly focused on the social media piece of this. But Kevin, I would say, over the past couple of weeks, it has been impossible to ignore the drumbeat of stories about bad news at Tesla.

kevin roose

Yeah. And we should say, like, we’re not an automotive podcast, but I think this is an important story that we should talk about for two reasons. One of them is that Tesla is just, I think, an important technology company. They are worth more than Ford, GM, all the other major American car companies combined. And they actually have sort of accelerated our transition to renewable energy, into electric vehicles.

casey newton

Absolutely.

kevin roose

I think the other reason is that Tesla is also Elon Musk’s cash cow. It is how he makes the vast majority of the money that he uses to fund all of his other projects, such as acquiring Twitter, now X. So for all those reasons, I think it’s really important to track what’s going on at Tesla.

It has also been a wild couple of years for that company. In 2021, Tesla became just the sixth company in the history of the United States to be worth more than $1 trillion. But now, two and a half years later, its value has fallen by more than half. This year, the stock has been down almost 40 percent. And this week, it reported quarterly earnings that were pretty terrible.

casey newton

Yeah. But other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

kevin roose

[LAUGHS]: So today, to talk about this, we are joined by Andy Hawkins. Andy is the transportation editor at “The Verge.”

casey newton

Andy was an old colleague of mine at “The Verge.” He’s been covering this company for a long time. So he has a really great perspective to bring to this story.

kevin roose

So let’s bring him in.

Andy Hawins, welcome to “Hard Fork.”

andy hawkins

Hello.

casey newton

Hey, Andy.

andy hawkins

Hi.

kevin roose

So you recently wrote a great piece called “Tesla’s in its Flop Era.”

andy hawkins

Yes.

kevin roose

What led you to that conclusion? Just run down the sort of flop evidence chain here.

andy hawkins

Well, I am a connoisseur of flop eras. No —

kevin roose

Casey’s been in his flop era since the mid -‘90s.

casey newton

Yeah, but I’m due for come-back any day now, any day now.

andy hawkins

Tesla’s in its flop era because its sales are down, its profits are down, its shiny new electric truck is being recalled. It’s being investigated for numerous malfeasance around its claims around self-driving, and it’s being sued by people whose family members have died in their cars. There’s just a compounding series of missteps and problems that the company is facing at this exact moment, which is why that led me to make that conclusion.

kevin roose

And how many of the problems that Tesla is struggling with right now are kind of like, for lack of a better word, normal car company problems, and how many are sort of Tesla-specific? Like, I know that it’s been sort of a rough year for lots of automakers, especially ones in the electric vehicle market. So is this just sort of a broader symptom, or are there things about Tesla specifically that are causing it to struggle?

andy hawkins

Yeah, I would say it’s probably about 50/50, right? I think 50 percent could be attributable to macroeconomic issues or problems that the entire industry is going through, and 50 percent are very Tesla-specific problems. So the macro problems is, as you alluded to, less people are interested in buying electric cars right now, right?

The early adopters have all bought their Teslas. And so now, you’re left sort of struggling on how to address the rest of the consumer base, which are people who want cheaper cars. They want cars that are easier to charge, that require less charging.

Maybe you’re a little bit more anxious about making a switch to an electric car. Maybe politics are factoring into it, right? They’re hearing a lot of politicians, Republican politicians, railing against electric cars, so they feel like it’s not the best choice for them because of those reasons.

And then, on the other side, you’ve got Tesla’s own problems of its own making, which are, Tesla only has, really, four vehicles, right? And if you include the Cybertruck, I guess, five. And that’s kind of — they’ve been showing their age recently.

So you’ve got all those issues. And then, you’ve got, like, the Elon Musk of it all, which is that he’s a very polarizing figure who says lots of controversial things. And that turns off a lot of people as well. So I think you can kind of lump that into the problems that are of Tesla’s own making.

casey newton

And on the Elon Musk thing specifically, Andy, do you think it is at a point now where the maybe declining public perception of Elon Musk is actually showing up in Tesla’s financials?

andy hawkins

I — so it’s hard to make an exact connection there, but there have been, I think, a number of surveys that have been showing that his polarizing status has had reputational harm. And I think it’s been proven that the purchase of Twitter, his conspiracy mongering, his railing against woke politics — all of these things are certainly having a reputational effect on Tesla.

And that’s also because Tesla is synonymous with Elon Musk. Elon Musk is synonymous with Tesla in a way that all other car companies have really managed to avoid. Their CEOs — I don’t think you can name them if you were really challenged to, whereas with Tesla, it is an Elon Musk company through and through, and I think that that’s presented a bit of a challenge for their car sales.

kevin roose

There was a lot of hope among Tesla fans that the Cybertruck, this much-heralded, very divisive pickup truck, essentially, that looks like a thing from either “Mad Max” or “Blade Runner” or maybe just the cyborgian future, was going to turn this slide around, that it was going to be such a commercial hit. Tesla fans were going to line up to buy this thing. What happened to the Cybertruck?

andy hawkins

Yeah, so it got recalled. Not a huge shock there, because as we’ve — I think we’ve seen since they actually started rolling out the truck last year, everyone who has one has been posting videos about it online, on YouTube, on Instagram, elsewhere. And while they’ll say that they really love their trucks and they think it’s so cool, you can see that there have been little flaws here and there. And eventually, it all kind of added up, and they had to recall every single Cybertruck that has been sold so far, because of this issue with the accelerator pedal getting stuck.

casey newton

Is that bad?

andy hawkins

That’s — I’ve heard that’s bad. I don’t know. I have not actually driven a cruise missile before.

But I’ve been told that you don’t want to really be behind the wheel of one.

kevin roose

So I heard about this Cybertruck recall. A lot of people were making fun of it and sort of talking about how funny it was that this amazing new Cybertruck has a problem with the accelerator pedal that might turn it into a deadly weapon. But I also think that we learned as a result of this recall how many Cybertrucks have actually been sold. So Andy, how many Cybertrucks have actually been sold?

andy hawkins

You see, this is why I love recalls so much, because it does tell you these things. It gives you this sort of secret knowledge that you’re not supposed to know. And yeah, that’s exactly right. It told us that there are at least 3,800 cybertrucks in existence.

kevin roose

Is that a lot?

andy hawkins

It seems like it’s — I don’t know. I was actually kind of surprised by it. It was a little bit more than I thought, given everything that the company said about how difficult this production process was going to be and how long it was going to take to ramp up production of the Cybertruck. I was actually surprised.

Now, that said, we don’t know if there’s actually 3,800 Cybertrucks that have been delivered to people. There could be a certain percentage of those that are just waiting on the lot at Tesla HQ for their customers to come pick them up. It’s not clear that that’s actually a reflection of how many actually are on the road today.

casey newton

I feel like I’ve seen about 3,800 social media posts about different ways that their Cybertruck broke. So that feels right. The number feels right.

kevin roose

No, it felt low to me, because I feel like I’ve seen 3,800 Cybertrucks. Like, we live in the Bay Area. I see them every — do you see them?

casey newton

I have seen, I believe, two Cybertrucks. But it is still the sort of thing where if someone sees a Cybertruck, like, in everyday life, they will take a picture of it, and they will show it to you the next time they see you.

kevin roose

That’s true.

casey newton

Yeah.

kevin roose

Andy, I want to talk about the autonomous driving of it all. Because this is something that Elon Musk has been talking about for years. I remember watching Tesla announcements back in, I don’t know, 2016, 2017, where he was saying, in a couple of years, Teslas are going to be fully self-driving. You’re going to be able to press a button and basically have it take you from New York to Los Angeles without you having to ever put your hands on the wheel.

Obviously, that has not happened, at least on the time frame that he predicted. But he is now saying that they’re moving closer to being able to fully self-drive these Teslas. They just slashed the prices on Tesla’s full self-driving feature, which is not actually fully self-driving.

But Elon Musk is still talking a lot about autonomy and the sort of near future of what Teslas will be able to do with people inside them. So just bring us up to speed on the state of Tesla’s autonomous driving push.

andy hawkins

Yeah. So I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that he’s betting the entire company on this proposition that you will be able to have your own self-driving Tesla at some point in the future. You’ve noted that he — they have released these driver assist systems. First, there was autopilot, and now, there’s full self-driving, or FSD.

And these are level-two driver assist systems. You have to remain fully engaged in the driving task. You have to stay focused on the road. You can’t check your phone or watch a movie. It’s not full self-driving, despite how it’s being marketed.

But that said, his claim is that, you know, all our cars are out there, they’re operating on these systems, and we’re gathering all this data. And we’re going to use it to eventually flip a switch at some point, and everyone’s Tesla will suddenly be awarded this magical ability to drive itself from door to door without any interventions. Sounds great.

The only problem is, a few years ago, Tesla kind of narrowed down its hardware stack. So in the past, Tesla used to use a number of different sensors — cameras primarily, but also radar and ultrasonic sensors — in which to gather all this data and allow its cars to view the world. But then, a few years ago, he decided that was too complex. It was too expensive.

So now, they’re on a completely camera-only system, vision-only. And his argument has been, look, we’re out there. Human beings — we’re driving. We use our eyes. That’s our primary way that we see the world, and that’s the main function in which we use to drive vehicles.

So the robot needs to be able to do the same. The only problem is that there’s no fallback. There’s no — if something fails, there’s not another layer there, a safety net in which to prevent a massive failure.

If you look at other companies like Waymo, Cruise, which is going through its problems — but all these other autonomous vehicle companies that offer level 4 autonomy use a number of different sensors. Cameras, yes, but also radars, lidars, ultrasonic. And the argument there is that they need to have these sort of backup systems in case something fails, and Tesla does not have that, which leads to a lot of skepticism about these claims.

kevin roose

Andy, tell us about the Tesla robotaxi. This is an idea that Elon has been floating for years.

casey newton

How do we defend our families against it?

kevin roose

What is the robotaxi, and what promises or claims is he making about it?

andy hawkins

Well, the first thing you should know is that it apparently has a new name, according to Musk in this earnings call. He referred to it as the cybercab, which just doesn’t really roll off the tongue the same way that robotaxi does, but they’re both kind of dumb names. So choose — choose your fighter, I guess.

But yeah, so he’s been promising this thing called the Tesla network, all the way back since, I think, like, 2017, where he said, OK, so we’re going to have fully autonomous vehicles. You know, that means that your car — instead of losing value as soon as you buy it, it will actually appreciate and gain value, because you’ll be able to earn passive income. You’ll go to sleep, and you’ll send your car out to go start picking people up and doing taxi trips and earning yourself passive income in the process.

kevin roose

I’m always asking my car in the morning, What did you do for me while I was asleep? Did you earn me any passive income?

casey newton

I just love the idea of, like, you go to drive to work, and you just open up your car, and there’s just, like, McDonald’s in there from whoever was in it while they were coming home drunk from the club. Sounds like a fun way to own a vehicle.

andy hawkins

Well, so yeah, I mean, it’s like it has all the hallmarks of a really great online scam, right? Like, passive income — like, that’s just such a great thing to sell people, because they love — everyone loves the idea of earning money without having to do anything. The only problem is that, as I explained, the cars themselves do not have this capability, cannot drive without humans in the driver’s seat.

And so it remains unclear how this is actually going to look in reality. We got a little bit of a peek during the earnings this week. They had some screenshots of what the ride-hailing app is going to look like for the cybercab. But yeah, it’s very clear that he thinks that this is going to be something that is really going to define, sort of, Tesla’s next stage.

Like, its next wave of growth is going to be defined by this robotaxi application. But I feel like it’s going to be really hamstrung by some of these technical challenges.

casey newton

Well, you know, so what I’m hearing is that this company has a lot of really difficult practical challenges in the here and now, related to demand for EVs, problems with the vehicles that it is selling. And as he has so often done in the past, Elon Musk comes along and has a brand new story to sell. And he says that in the near future, everything is going to be different, and I’m going to wave a magic wand, and cyber paradise will materialize.

And as somebody who has written about Elon, mostly in the context of X, my observation has just been that most of this stuff either doesn’t happen, or to the extent that it does happen, it under-delivers, right? So my curiosity, Andy, is how likely you think it is that the real Tesla, that is not just Elon Musk on an earnings call, can actually deliver all these things that he’s promising?

andy hawkins

Yeah. I mean, I think your assessment of it is right. You know, he’s bullshitted his way through most of his professional career. And it’s worked out for him. Like, that’s the incentive structure that he’s come to know and love, right?

He’s bullshitted his way through a lot of Tesla stuff, and he’s been rewarded for it by becoming one of the richest men in the world. So why change now? Why change tactics if it’s worked so well for him in the past?

But like I said, I think what the company is now confronting is sort of very basic car company stuff that they have not been able to really figure out. And he can’t really bullshit his way out of cooling demand and regulatory issues and just, sort of, like, the nature of the market and what it is. So I think it’s — he’s going to run into some of these — more of these problems in the future, and he will continue to try to bullshit his way through it. I just don’t think it’s going to be as successful as it was in the past.

kevin roose

Andy, I want to return to something that you said earlier in the conversation, which is that part of what’s going on at Tesla is actually broader than just Tesla, that demand for electric vehicles has been shrinking, at least in the United States. That is sad to me. Like, as someone who wants there to be more options for people to get off of fossil fuels, to rely on more renewable energy, to drive electric cars, like, can you help me understand why that’s happening?

Because it seems like for a number of years, we were on a really good trajectory with the adoption of electric vehicles by American consumers. So what happened?

andy hawkins

Yeah. The problem is kind of multifolded. You’ve got the fact that the auto industry, when they saw Tesla’s success, and they decided, hey, we want a piece of that, they decided — started making their own electric vehicles, they prioritized expensive vehicles and big, heavy trucks and SUVs. And that’s going to work for, obviously, a lot of people in the world, because we — especially in America, we love big trucks and SUVs.

The only problem is that they were a lot more expensive than what I think a lot of people were used to with their gas trucks and SUVs. So having to pay a premium over what they were used to paying — that was a little bit too far for most people to stomach. And then you had problems with the charging infrastructure.

It just wasn’t up to snuff, right? People have this expectation of being able to drive to a gas station and fill up in five minutes, and then they’re out of there. With charging an electric vehicle, it’s a much different ownership experience.

You have to first locate a charger. It needs to be a working charger, which is a struggle, since so many of them have mechanical problems and software problems. And then once you get there, you might have to wait a long time, because somebody else might be plugged in.

And then, on top of that, once you actually get plugged in, it’s going to take 30, 40 minutes for you to go from 10 percent of your battery charge to 80 percent. I think a lot of the momentum that we saw with EVs, especially last year, has now transferred to hybrids, and hybrids are now — sales are growing by double-digit numbers, which is not to say that the future still will be all electric. I still firmly believe that the future will be electric. We’ve sort of passed that point already. But I think it’s just going to be a lot slower-going and a lot more complex than maybe we previously thought.

kevin roose

Well, what are the Tesla optimists saying is happening right now?

andy hawkins

Well, once you get rid of all of the “Musk is the second coming,” “he’s the Messiah,” kind of chatter that you typically hear from some of the fanboys, I do think that the company’s focus on electric vehicles and exclusively electric vehicles does give them an advantage over legacy automakers. They were the first to realize that cars can be computers, that cars can be updatable through software updates, and that can fix a lot of the problems that you might have with vehicle ownership.

And they obviously laid the groundwork for charging much earlier than other companies have been. And now, you’re starting to see the rest of the industry adopt Tesla’s charging standard, because their chargers, super chargers — they just tend to work a lot better than a lot of the other third-party chargers that are out there. So that was a really smart move by the company. And I also think that if anyone’s going to make a truly mass-market, Toyota Camry-level electric vehicle, Tesla stands the best chance of being the company to do it. Because they have the expertise. They have the infrastructure in place. They have the engineering know-how.

And I think that — and that was one of the things, I think, that a lot of investors were hoping to hear from the company. There was some mixed messages about whether or not Tesla was going to make a more affordable model 2, like, $25,000 electric car. There was some reporting that suggested that plan was on hold, in favor of going all in on this robotaxi.

But then, last night during this earnings call, Musk recommitted the company to making more affordable models. We just don’t know if it’s going to be a standalone model, like a model 2, or maybe just even a cheaper model 3. But that said, the company, I do think, has the best chances of being the one to bring the cost down and make a truly mass-market electric vehicle.

casey newton

So you know, Andy, you sort of mentioned at the beginning that this company has a history of challenges and doubters and haters. But through hook and by crook, they’ve always come out ahead in the end. When you consider everything that we’ve been talking about today, do you feel like, well, maybe we’re just sort of in another one of those moments, some sort of temporary dip as they find their way to the next thing? Or do you have a sense that maybe something really is different this time and this could be the beginning of a more significant decline?

andy hawkins

It feels different this time, right? First of all, you’ve had a big round of layoffs. The company laid off around 10 percent of its global workforce, which amounts to about 14,000 people. That’s a lot of people to lose.

And it could be even higher than that. I think I saw a report in “Bloomberg” that Elon actually wanted to cut 20 percent of the company. And not just the workforce, but at the top levels of the company, they’ve lost a lot of the big names that used to be sort of, like, aside from Elon, the ones that you most associated with the company’s success. And just —

casey newton

Yeah, I heard Nikola Tesla died, for example. That was a huge loss.

andy hawkins

[LAUGHS]: So it does seem that this is a different company than it used to be, right? Yeah, Elon may still be at the top, and it may obviously be very much tied to his personal worldview. But at the same time, with fewer of those former executives, and also the employees, it just feels like, you know, that we’re entering into a new era with Tesla.

And whether or not they’re going to overcome all the challenges that they have, as they did in the past with COVID and shutdowns, and then before that with model 3 and production hell and the company almost going out of business — I don’t think the company is at risk of going out of business. But I think the fact that with the turnover that they’ve experienced, and then going so all in on this robotaxi concept that has such a high risk of failure, really puts things into perspective, I think, for a lot of, I think, people who have maybe a little bit more of a nuanced view of this company and its possible future.

casey newton

Yeah. I mean, like, not for nothing, but the taxi business was not known for being a great, high-margin business for the people who ran it. So I would be really curious what the plan is there to turn that into a real cash cow. Any ideas, Kevin?

kevin roose

No, I don’t.

casey newton

All right.

kevin roose

Do you have any?

casey newton

Well, I think — actually, I would like to see —

kevin roose

Actually, Cash Cab.

casey newton

Cash Cab.

kevin roose

Here’s the model.

andy hawkins

Oh, you guys.

kevin roose

You get into a cybercab, and 1 out of 100 times, it lights up, and you get to play a quiz show, and there’s a million-dollar prize.

casey newton

That’s a fun idea, but I’ve got a better one. I would love to see Elon marry two of his twin passions, and so that in the future, there will be a fleet of AI-powered Tesla cybercabs that just deliver ketamine right to your front door.

And I think if they could figure that out, they’d have a real business.

kevin roose

Sky’s the limit.

casey newton

Sky’s the limit.

andy hawkins

Sign me up.

casey newton

Yep.

kevin roose

All right. Andy, thank you so much for joining us.

casey newton

Thank you, Andy.

andy hawkins

Oh, it’s a pleasure. Thanks, guys.

kevin roose

When we come back, we’re going to outer space, baby.

casey newton

I’m staying right here.

kevin roose

Well, Casey, you know on this podcast, we love stories about heroic nerds.

casey newton

We absolutely do.

kevin roose

So a couple of weeks ago, we had the story of the engineer at Microsoft who may have saved us from a huge, devastating cyber attack. This week, we have a story that I think warms my heart even more.

casey newton

Yeah, because it’s about something that you almost never hear about, which is an aging piece of technology continuing to work.

kevin roose

Exactly. And doing so in space. So this week, researchers at NASA had a big celebratory moment when they learned that they had successfully fixed an old, glitchy computer system on Voyager, one of the longest-operating spacecrafts in history. This is a spacecraft that is 47 years old, which is about your age, right?

casey newton

It is much older than I am, Kevin. It went into space in a completely different decade from the one that I was born in. But it has been doing amazing work ever since 1977, when it was shot up there.

kevin roose

Yeah, so you could think of this as the most audacious tech support attempt in history. Because these engineers at NASA were faced with a severe problem. There was a glitch on board Voyager 1. They were getting back this data that they had expected, but it was different.

casey newton

It was gibberish, Kevin!

kevin roose

It was gibberish.

casey newton

Yeah. But there was a small, dedicated team that got together to figure out, how do you fix a 47-year-old computer —

kevin roose

Yeah.

casey newton

— from 15 billion miles away.

kevin roose

Yeah.

[chuckles]

It is truly a wild story. And I think it’s a good chance for us to talk about a piece of the tech world that we don’t talk about that much, which is rockets and space, and the fact that we send all this stuff up into space, all these computers, and then things happen to them. Things go wrong. Things break. Things glitch.

And when that happens, you have two options. You can either let it go and just become sort of a piece of defunct space debris. Or you can try to fix it. And this team of engineers at NASA tried to fix it.

Because, as it turns out, this data that it is collecting from Voyager 1 is pretty important. It is further from Earth than any other piece of manmade equipment.

casey newton

And not only that, Kevin. But on board of each of these spacecraft, there is a golden record that contain on them — greetings from Earth, popular music, and if all goes according to plan, when finally an alien civilization hears these messages, they will decide not to destroy us all.

kevin roose

That’s true.

casey newton

And wouldn’t that be amazing?

kevin roose

And it’d be funny if the golden record was just a bunch of B-sides from Cher.

casey newton

Wait, that would be amazing. What are you talking about?

kevin roose

No, that’d be great.

casey newton

Yeah.

kevin roose

But I don’t think that would further our cause with the aliens.

casey newton

I’m just hoping there was a lot of Fleetwood Mac on there.

kevin roose

I bet there was.

casey newton

Because if there’s one thing that we can all agree on in this divided nation, it’s Fleetwood Mac.

kevin roose

And in this divided galaxy.

casey newton

Absolutely.

kevin roose

Aliens would like it, too. So to talk about what’s happening with Voyager 1, this massive tech support project, and how NASA went about tackling this glitch, we invited on Todd Barber.

He is an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California. And he was actually there in the room on Saturday when the team found out that they had successfully fixed this space computer.

casey newton

So let’s make some space for Todd Barber.

kevin roose

Todd Barber, welcome to “Hard Fork.”

todd barber

Thank you. I’m delighted to be here today.

kevin roose

So you and your team have been dealing with, I believe, the most hardcore tech support issue that I’ve ever heard about. So take us back to the time that you all started figuring out that there was a technical problem that needed to be fixed here. What did that look like?

todd barber

Yeah, so taking me back to a very dark day there, but that’s OK.

[laughs]

That’s why we do these things. So it’s mid-November of 2023. We track Voyager 1 about one third of the time, so basically, every day.

So we leave our last track. Everything’s fine. No problems. The data looks great. And then we come up on our next track, and it’s just complete gibberish.

Voyager 1 is just sending repeated patterns of 1 and 0. So no science data, but also no engineering or health data about the state of the spacecraft. So that was a dark day on the project.

casey newton

Then let me ask you a very basic practical question. This thing is 15 billion miles away from Earth. How do you communicate with it?

todd barber

Well, very slowly, even though the signal moves at the speed of light, 186,000 miles every second. Because of that 15-billion-mile distance, if you divide those two out, it’s about a 22-and-1/2-hour, one-way light time. So if there’s a problem, it’s almost a day for us to learn about it on Earth, and then another day to send up a fix. And that’d be for an instantaneous fix.

So it’s a lagged conversation. But as long as we’re communicating, that’s OK. And of course, that was the problem back in November, as Voyager 1 just was like a petulant little child who’s not communicating.

casey newton

Yeah. But, like, what kind of signals are they? Like, presumably, you’re not using the AT&T 4G network.

todd barber

(CHUCKLING) No. These are generally S-band signals. It’s in the microwave radio frequency spectrum and don’t have a whole lot of competition from other spacecraft in that wavelength band. And it’s great. It goes a long distance, and it’s kind of tolerant to weather issues on Earth, to some extent.

Because a real bad — we can get rained out like a baseball game if we have a really bad day. But otherwise, that lifeline is this radio signal back and forth. So there’s a carrier signal, and then the subcarrier. We decommutate on the ground, just like your TV does with the old rabbit ears. You get a signal decommutated and —

casey newton

I mean, my TV, when I had rabbit ears, couldn’t get a signal from about 300 yards away. So these must be a heck of a radio signal they’re using up there.

todd barber

Well, I guess, on brand for Voyager, I’m still rocking rabbit ears at home, too. And it works great, nice high-def signal, so. [CHUCKLES]

kevin roose

So Todd, the data that comes off this spacecraft, Voyager 1 — what is the data? What are we using this for? Why do we need this data to make its way back to Earth?

todd barber

Sure. Well, there’s the combo. Now, I’m an engineer on the project. I’m the propulsion guy — rocket scientist, if you will. And so I’m looking at the health and safety of the propulsion system, how much propellant’s left. I’m like space plumber.

But the real reason, of course, we do the mission is for science. And we’re in an area of space no spacecraft has been before. Apologies to kind of a “Star Trek” reference there, to boldly go.

But that’s the excitement. We’ve crossed what’s called the heliopause. The sun blows a bubble around itself, and we crossed that boundary on Voyager 1 in 2012 and on Voyager 2 in 2018. So we’re the only two working spacecraft outside that bubble in interstellar space.

So the key there is, since we’re a brand new environment, all we had before was, what do the models tell us this space between the stars is like? And it turns out most of them were wrong, and the scientists love being wrong, because then they can go back and refine their models and try to figure out, well, what’s really going on out there?

So to actually have in-situ measurements from not one but two spacecraft outside that bubble — that’s the excitement and thrill of Voyager science. And it’s hard science to explain to the general public. The cameras are off. It’s a lack of pretty pictures. But the science is absolutely fundamental.

kevin roose

So back in November, your team starts seeing this incomprehensible data coming back from Voyager 1. It’s a very dark day. You said this is not a fun thing to learn. Now, I want to ask you the question that I get asked every time I call tech support, which is, Did you try turning it off and then back on again?

todd barber

That’s a great question. Absolutely, that’s the first thing we tried. And it unfortunately didn’t work.

kevin roose

So if it wasn’t just about turning it off and back on again, tell us how you actually identified the source of the problem and what it was.

todd barber

So through this whole five-month process, we could tell Voyager was alive — Voyager 1 was alive — and pointed at the Earth. Because we were still getting this carrier signal. But that’s really just like a flat tone that I’m there. There was nothing that we could decommutate off the carrier signal to get any telemetry.

But we did see, as we started trying to change some of the telemetry modes, that some things did change in the subtleties of the carrier signal. So that told us we were commandable. We could get commands to the spacecraft that was interpreting them.

So one of the next things we tried was, there was a very old program.

And all this would do — it’s a very simple little piece of code that would just send two pieces of telemetry. But we couldn’t test that.

There was no test bed. It hadn’t been used in decades. But we found a way to upload that, and that worked. So that was a start to diagnosing this problem.

kevin roose

Yeah. So let me just summarize back to you what I’ve heard so far. So you’re trying to communicate with the Voyager. You’re sending it signals. You’re trying to modify the data that you’re receiving from it to test if it’s working. Do I have that right so far?

todd barber

Yeah. And this is just to get a tiny piece of code running to give us just a bare minimum, like two checks of a couple of telemetry channels. That’s about it.

kevin roose

OK, so what happens next?

todd barber

Yeah, so we actually had to go in, and that’s scary, because it’s write-protected hardware, so we have to take off the write protection and and poke a value in there. And that’s really kind of frightening. You don’t want to make a mistake there. You could easily kill the spacecraft. So I remember all of us kind of looking over these hex words, going line by line till our eyes were kind of crying. But just making sure every little bit was right, so we wouldn’t make the problem worse. So somehow, all of this — we get a memory readout.

And that’s when we got this first clue. It looked like one chip, which is about 256 bits, had all of its bits flipped. So that’s like a chip failure. So it’s amazing, even with no telemetry and from 15 billion miles away and nearly one-day-old data, we said, aha, we think it’s this chip.

kevin roose

And is the problem with the chip, as best you understand it, is it age-related? I mean, this is a very old computer. It’s 47 years old.

todd barber

Yeah, that’s correct.

casey newton

And to put that into context, that’s older than Kevin is.

kevin roose

Yeah, that’s true.

casey newton

That’s right.

kevin roose

That’s true. So things start failing in your 30s, I am learning. And by the time you’re 47, some of your bits might have flipped. So is that what happened to this chip?

todd barber

That’s one theory and definitely a possibility. The other is that maybe in the — you know, interstellar space is a little more unforgiving in its radiation environment. So we might have had some kind of radiation damage to that chip in this environment.

kevin roose

I just find it amazing that anything computer-related can last for 47 years.

casey newton

No.

kevin roose

I’m on my fourth pair of AirPods.

I mean, I cannot keep a piece of technology alive for six months, and you all did it for 47 years. So congratulations.

todd barber

Thank you. Well —

kevin roose

— keeping it alive to that point.

todd barber

Extremely well built. And I’ll say, I have a Commodore 64. 42 years old, it still works. I put in the 5-1/4-inch floppy and play a video game. Oh, the graphics on it are so, so beautiful. But this is from ‘82, so maybe they just really built things really well back in the ‘70s.

casey newton

That’s a true case of “they don’t build them like they used to.”

todd barber

Absolutely. So —

kevin roose

So OK, you’ve got this chip. It’s one chip. It’s 256 bits. Its bits have been flipped. It doesn’t work anymore. How do you fix that? What is the solution that you all come up with?

todd barber

OK. So an intermediate step before we even did that — we said, we want a real, like, calculated MRO. So —

kevin roose

What’s an MRO?

todd barber

Sorry.

kevin roose

Todd, you have to remember, we’re idiots.

todd barber

Oh, bad boy. I use TLAs all the time — sorry, Three-Letter Acronyms. I can’t do that.

casey newton

Wait, there’s a three-letter acronym for three-letter acronyms?

todd barber

No, that’s mine, I think. But — [LAUGHS]:

kevin roose

Wow.

todd barber

But anyway, thank you. MRO is a Memory Read-Out. So we ended up getting —

kevin roose

We’re HDAs over here. We’re Huge Dumb-Asses, Todd. Just keep that in mind.

casey newton

I’ll say it. My bits are flipped right now.

todd barber

Yeah.

[laughs]

Now, that’s a useful acronym. Thank you. So then the idea is that everything that went through that chip, all the code, and again, lack of documentation and no test bed — they had to relocate all of that to free parts of memory.

And when you have 69k worth of memory, there’s not a lot of free stuff there. In fact, that one chip was 3 percent of our memory. So we couldn’t relocate the whole thing in any one spot.

We actually had to break it up into a few pieces. That’s scary. And then, any dependency of the flight software code that went through that chip that called other modes and things to other parts of memory — we had to trace all those paths to make sure that none of them would call back to that bad chip. So that took months and a lot of hard work by the team.

kevin roose

And just to reinforce how insane all this is — this is not — when you’re talking about relocating things, this is all happening billions of miles away, all through these radio signals that take almost a day to arrive.

todd barber

That is correct. So we were commanding on about a weekly cadence, and we knew the moment of truth was then about the 18th of April, which was a Thursday. That happened to be our uplink pass that week.

So we sent this set of commands, all these hardware pokes, many, many of them, to specific addresses to relocate all that code. And because of that two-day round-trip light time, basically, we all met about 6 AM on Saturday morning, April 20. And we were in the room to see if it would work. We brought our displays up and waited for the magic hour to come.

kevin roose

And how nervous were you? Like, that’s got to be a very nerve-wracking moment, where you’re waiting to hear whether this audacious repair has actually succeeded.

todd barber

I’m waiting anxiously. I want to see my propulsion data, because I haven’t seen my ancient spacecraft in five months. You know, what other problems — how has it aged in those five months? So I’m just really hoping they did everything right from the point of view of getting back to work and seeing the health and safety of the propulsion system.

kevin roose

So take us inside the room at the moment of truth. What does it look like? What’s going on?

todd barber

It’s just all smiles, some high fives. And we didn’t miss them like usual. I think there’s been some high-five training here amongst the engineers and scientists — and a few tears and just massive relief and celebration. I personally had my computer up and just started seeing my first propulsion bits of telemetry come in the first view into the health of the propulsion system in five months.

So that was magic. And of course, it was just right to work then for the engineers. Because what are we seeing? Is that right? How have things changed in the last five months? But still, a moment to celebrate, for sure.

kevin roose

So, OK, is everything fixed now? Is there more to be done, or is this sort of the big repair?

todd barber

This was — for the engineers, this was a golden moment. But of course, science is still patiently waiting. We’re not an engineering mission. We are an absolutely a science mission.

So the next step is to figure out — there’s three other of these telemetry modes that the geniuses and the Tiger team have to figure out how to relocate that code that goes through the failed chip. The good news is, the three combined is less total code than we had to do just to get the engineering data. The bad news is, we might have to do more of that splicing, a little piece here and there, and check all the dependencies.

So we’re planning that work now, and hopefully, within, let’s say, a month or two, we’re fully — and now, I’d say we have more confidence that that’s going to work, because of our success in getting the engineering data back. So once we get this, then we can get all the science instruments back speaking to us, and pick up where we left off with that five-month gap in the data.

But every day, as our project manager says, Voyager 2 sets a new longevity record for a spacecraft since it launched before Voyager 1. And Voyager 1 sets a new distance record for a spacecraft. So it’ll be great to pick that up.

casey newton

When they launch those, how long did they think that they would still be out there doing science?

todd barber

Yeah, it’s a great question. So we launched in 1977, taking advantage of this incredibly rare cosmic alignment of the four gas giant outer planets — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. That only comes every 176 years.

So we were very lucky to have the technology. NASA wasn’t even 20 years old yet when we sent Voyager 1 and 2 on their way. And at the time, no spacecraft had really lasted more than a year and two in space.

So it was already a stretch goal to get Voyager 1 and 2 to the five-year mark, which is what it would need to get out to Jupiter and Saturn and play all the data back. So not only did we do that, we preserved the option for Voyager 2 to go on to Uranus and Neptune.

And by then, we’re 12 years into the mission — a huge stretch goal just to get there. That all worked fine. And then, since both spacecraft were still working, had some propellant, we realized that they might just — if we were really, really lucky, they might just cross the heliopause.

And at the time, the heliopause — this is this edge of the bubble. And at the time, we thought that bubble was a lot smaller than it turned out to be. So as we’re going out, you know, where’s the bubble? When are we going to cross?

And the project nearly got canceled a time or two. But finally, we had some hints that we were getting close to the edge of the bubble in around 2004. And sure enough, we crossed it in 2012, Voyager 1, 2018, Voyager 2. But I don’t think anybody at the time, no matter how well it was built and using the best parts and just really making a mission for the ages — I don’t think anyone could have dreamed we’d be here in 2024, talking about — with two relatively healthy spacecraft.

casey newton

Yeah. And how much life do you think they might still have in them?

todd barber

Yeah, that’s the big $64,000 question. So we don’t know what will end either mission. There’s some hard constraints that we know are out there. There’s — the power source is a RTG, Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator. We lose about 4 watts a year.

And we’ve already had to turn off some science instruments over the last 20 years. Cameras, for example — there’s nothing to see, so might as well turn those off, turn their heaters off. We ended up running out of, basically, things to turn off, except for the last heaters on the working science instruments.

And so we said, well, got nothing to lose. Before you turn a science instrument off, let’s turn heaters off. And so we started doing that. And so far, we’re 5 for 5. We’ve put the instruments in an absolute deep freeze, and the temperatures they never saw during ground testing or in flight, and have no right to still be working, and yet, all the instruments are still working.

They’re pretty cold. We had to recalibrate some things, but they’re still working fine. And then, we were finally out of power, and we realized we were going to have to start turning off science instruments one by one.

Well, then someone said, well, maybe we can let the power margin go negative and go to what’s called an unregulated DC bus voltage. And that was not thought possible or was to be avoided. Well, guess what? We tried that on Voyager 2. It worked.

So now, that bought us another two or three years. Now, it’s a 47-year-old — two 47-year-old spacecraft. Something else could easily break tomorrow. Every day is a gift.

kevin roose

Todd, is there any fanfare planned for the day, inevitably, when Voyager 1 is officially retired? Are you going to throw it a retirement party? Does it get a gold watch? What’s the plan?

todd barber

Well, I’m glad you brought up gold watch. That’s a very apt description, because our goal right now — with both spacecraft, to release one of them is to somehow make the 50th anniversary since launch. So a gold watch for the golden record on our golden anniversary — that would be unbelievable.

That is August and September of 2027. So maybe six months ago, I would say that’s looking pretty dicey. But there’s renewed vigor, now that we’ve seen Voyager 1, that it seemed to age fairly well over the last five months.

And Voyager 2 is generally in better shape in most areas. So I think there’s definitely a chance to get to that 50th anniversary. And that will be a heck of a party.

casey newton

You mentioned that there is a gold record on one or both of the spacecraft. Is that right?

todd barber

That’s correct. It’s identical record on Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. And this is greetings, language, pictures, music from planet Earth, greatest hits as of 1977, and most beautiful eclectic set of music that you’ll hear from planet Earth, just from all over. It’s really a beautiful cosmic bottle in the ocean, if you will.

kevin roose

I just — I love this story. It is such a feel-good story about these engineers who set out to build a thing, and they just — they did it right. They did something right, and it’s lasted all these years, and it’s giving us, still, valuable data, long after anyone involved with the original project thought it would. I just think it’s a very cool story.

todd barber

Yeah, and we’ve had lots of miraculous recovery efforts over the years. But I have to say, to me, this one might just be the top of the heap.

kevin roose

Well, Todd, thanks so much for your time. Really appreciate it.

casey newton

Thank you, Todd.

kevin roose

And congratulations.

todd barber

Thank you very much. Go Voyager.

kevin roose

“Hard Fork” is produced by Whitney Jones and Rachel Cohn. We’re edited by Jen Poyant. We’re fact-checked by Caitlin Love.

Today’s show was engineered by Alyssa Moxley. Original music by Marion Lozano, Rowan Niemisto, and Dan Powell. Our audience editor is Nell Gallogly. Video production by Ryan Manning and Dylan Bergersen.

And if you haven’t already, check out our YouTube channel at youtube.com/hardfork. Special thanks to Paula Szuchman, Pui-Wing Tam, Kate LoPresti, and Jeffrey Miranda. As always, you can email us at hardfork@nytimes.com.

William Murphy

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