When it comes to computers, space science is far from space-age science. A new government report reveals that NASA’s ambitious program to explore the universe is being seriously hampered by on-board computers that are barely a match for the technology used in children’s video games.

The big problem, according to a report from the congressional General Accounting Office (GAO), is the difficulty of protecting leading-edge technology from the hazards of cosmic radiation found in space. That obstacle has forced NASA to use space computers that limit the scope of its missions, require expensive tending by astronauts, and flood ground computers with unnecessary information. The result is that such complex vehicles as the space shuttle and proposed space station depend on on-board processors no more powerful than those available in a typical desktop computer.

Because selection of the on-board computer is one of the first decisions made in the design of...

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