Remember the dinky, painfully slow processors and teeny amounts of memory of the 1980s and early 1990s computers -- the ones that ran your favorite video games like molasses? You probably assume that by now these puny computers are being used as doorstops. Well, guess again.
The computer hardware that controls the vital functions of both manned and unmanned U.S. and European spacecraft tends to be ancient, low-power stuff that's nowhere near as powerful as the gadgets you have in your pocket or on your desk, let alone the talking supercomputer HAL in "2001: A Space Odyssey." But space agencies aren't keeping otherwise obsolete computer technology alive out of nostalgia. Any computer chips taken into space have to be hardened to protect them against the high-radiation environment there, and then tested exhaustively to guarantee their reliability. It's safer to use the old and slow but proven designs than something more up-to-date that may fail [source: Heath]. Besides, it doesn't necessarily take a super-fast computer to run even a massive orbital satellite. The Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990, operated for close to two decades with a main computer powered by an Intel 486 processor, and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, launched in 1999, made important scientific discoveries with the help of an on-board electronic brain powered by the equivalent of a 386 [source: Moseman].