The triumph of engineering
7/8/2011 1:56 PM EDT
bf blog shuttle memory
Thirty years ago, you had to find a television to watch the space
shuttle launch. Today I watched the launch on an iPhone while riding a
Think about that. Wow.
When the Challenger launched in 1986, I was sitting in a press shack
(literally) in the Indiana Statehouse, writing up, for United Press
International, some legislative vote that had just taken place. I had a
slow-speed printer that rattled out stories all day and all night.
Suddenly five bells clanged out on it, signifying a bulletin. It was a
rare alarm. I leaned over my desk, looked at the spooling paper and read the
These were the days when, while we did have computers, they were huge, clunky and vulnerable to electrostatic mayhem in carpeted rooms. UPI had networks trunked into networks, all hugely
expensive leased lines that were vital for transmitting news to our
clients quickly and for communicating internally in short messages.
Telegraphers had only lost their jobs a few years before!
Around the time of the shuttle disaster, some of us in the field were
given Radio Track TRS 80 laptops (Trash 80s, as we called them). They
displayed four lines of text and were a pain in the neck to edit with,
but they came with rubber couplers you fastened on to a phone handset
(remember those?) to transmit our stories into the company system. Wow.
That was a huge leap, and made reporters far more efficient and mobile.
(Side note: Before this time, you had to phone in your story to a bureau to
a fellow reporter who took dictation and filed to the wire. Our bureau chief was a short but
fiery and brilliant woman who called in a story to one of our
colleagues. His fat fingers stumbled over the keys on this breaking
story and he introduced an error into the final story that hit the
wire. When our chief got back into the office she (4 feet and change)
stood toe to toe with this six-foot, 500-pound guy and laid into him
with language that would melt metal).
That was not quite 30 years ago. Many of you have enjoyed a career that
spans the life of the shuttle program. The shuttle itself pretty much
looks and acts the same, but its technology has advanced as well. Over
that same period, though, the gains made on hugely expensively projects
like the shuttle have trickled (no, poured) down into the
enterprise, into the consumer's hands. It has been relentless,
ambitious innovation on a scale humanity has never seen, moving faster
with each new decade.
This morning, on the bus, watching that last launch, I wept, not so
much for the end of a storied program, but for the singular and
breathtaking beauty of technical evolution and an engineering spirit
that never stops thinking of the possible.