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GE Records: The Fastest, Farthest, First, and Most Powerful

The Voyager 1 spacecraft is the farthest man-made object from Earth, and, along with its sibling Voyager 2, is also the longest running NASA mission to date. Today, both are heading into the unknown: interstellar space.

Launched in 1977, the Voyager spacecraft weren’t expected to last this long. But it turns out, they were built to last. GE engineers designed the Voyagers’ command computers directing the flight path and providing communication links with NASA Mission Control. GE engineers also designed the spacecrafts’ power source, which is still converting heat produced from the natural radioactive decay of plutonium into electricity for the instruments, computers, radios, and other systems that allow them to beam data to Earth.

So what do the Voyagers have in common with the fastest train, the fastest ship and the most powerful jet engine? All were, at least partially, the products of GE engineering. Click through the slideshow to learn more about how GE helped reach new frontiers, break records, and solve some of the biggest challenges facing civilization.

Breaking Speed Records in Trains: In 1966, railroad engineer Don Wetzel bought a pair of GE jet engines from a surplus Air Force bomber, bolted them to the roof of a stock commuter car, and took his contraption for a spin. On his second trip, the train sped along at 183, a North American rail speed record that still stands today.

Powering the Fastest Ship: The world’s fastest ship, the Francisco, is powered by two aircraft engine-based GE gas turbines driving a pair of water jets. Built at Australia’s Incat shipyard, it can reach speeds of 58.1 knots, or 67 miles an hour. It’s also the first ferry to use liquified natural gas as a primary fuel, which places it among the most environmentally friendly and efficient ships in the world.

Powering Systems in the Farthest Man-Made Object: Voyagers 1 and 2, headed to interstellar space, are to date the farthest objects built by people from Earth. Launched in 1977, they are still beaming data back to Earth today. GE engineers designed their command computers to direct the flight path and provide communication links with NASA Mission Control, as well as the probes’ power source called radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs).

Helping Put the First Man on the Moon: GE engineering helped put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. Materials for their boots and helmet visors were designed by GE, as well as the Apollo program’s radio command and guidance equipment. GE also engineers tested Apollo 11’s command and lunar modules. Between 1961 and 1972, a total of 6,000 GE employees from 37 different operations helped NASA run the Apollo program and send 24 people to the moon and back.

Pioneering the Use of Electronic Computers in Engineering: GE was the first company to use the world’s first general purpose electronic computer (which was owned by the U.S. Military) to solve engineering problems. In 1954, GE bought its own computer, the Universal Automatic Computer I, to use on projects ranging from building the first industrial computerized payroll for GE Appliances to monitoring the liftoff of Apollo 11.

Designing the Most Powerful Jet Engine: The GE90-115B jet engine is the most powerful jet engine. At a 2002 test stand, it generated 127,900 pounds of thrust, earning it a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records (that’s more than the combined total horsepower of the Titanic and the Redstone rocket that took the first American to space). But the engine is still graceful enough that one of its blades was featured in New York’s Museum of Modern Art for its Architecture and Design Collection.

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