Part of what makes the end of NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn so compelling is that the space agency has all the tools it needs to share the probe’s every discovery right up to its final moments with the rest of the world. NASA has a beautifully designed, in-depth website for Cassini to provide all the updates, the mission has its own Twitter account, and the final hour of the satellite’s existence will be livestreamed on YouTube and Facebook.
That’s what makes it all the more remarkable to look back at what NASA’s website looked like when Cassini first launched back in 1997. The internet was in its infancy then: YouTube and Facebook both wouldn’t be founded until 2005, while Twitter only began in 2006. What web presence Cassini had was limited to NASA’s own site, and it’s unrecognizable from the page in 2017. To realize Cassini is a product of 1997’s technology rather than 2017’s is to be even more humbled by all it has accomplished.
Here’s what greets you when you arrive at the current webpage for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Cassini’s home instition.
And here’s the 1997 page, as preserved by the Internet Archive.
Pointing this out isn’t intended as some mere exercise in laughing at the rather basic fact the internet was more primitive in 1997 than 2017. But think about how far technology has come in those 20 years, as shown by the difference between these two websites — and then consider Cassini didn’t get to enjoy any of that.
After all, once Cassini launched on October 15, 1997, there was no way of changing its on-board tech. All the computers at JPL that work with Cassini are now 20 years more advanced than what the probe has to offer. It’s all the more awe-inspiring to realize Cassini achieved all it has considering it was built at a time when NASA, perhaps the world’s single most famous science and research institution, couldn’t manage a website more impressive than this.
Or a news page that was anything more than a long bulleted list of hyperlinks.
Or this announcement of Cassini’s launch on October 15, which is nothing more than the proverbial wall of text.
In the grand scheme of things, 1997 isn’t even that long ago. Voyager 1 and 2 are still operating as they slowly leave the solar system, and those both run on tech from the late 1970s. But that’s just it: Every probe we send into space becomes a relic of the time it was first launched, its every success a tribute to how far we had come by that point. That we’ve come so much further since then makes the prospect of Cassini’s successor missions all the more tantalizing.