It’s Not Rocket Science… No Wait…

I was complaining to my wife that I didn’t have enough time in the day for all the things I wanted to do. In the process I said, I have to spend eight hours a day working with rockets. She laughed and asked what my sixteen year old self would have to say about that. It was a good question.

When I was sixteen years old we were in the middle of the golden age of moon missions at NASA. My best friend and I had followed the space program with avid interest. When something had gone wrong we were poring over our books that we had accumulated on the space craft to try to figure out what they were talking about. It was as if by focusing our attention on figuring out what was wrong and how to fix it we were doing something to help the crowd in Florida and Houston solve the problem.

Looking back, it was pretty miraculous. We sent those intrepid souls up in little tin cans strapped on top of massive ordinance. The flight computer in the Apollo was huge and expensive, both in terms of price and in terms of weight which related directly to the cost of launching it out of Earth’s gravity well. And yet it had less computing power than a programmable calculator that an eighth grader might use in math class today.

I actually date myself there. Eighth graders don’t use calculators any more except maybe to take tests where the concern might be to prevent them from cheating by “asking a friend”. They use their cell phones the rest of the time.

And now that I’ve mentioned it, as a result of the advances in miniaturization that were largely driven by the requirements of the space program, cell phones have become the ubiquitous, universal appliances that science fiction writers postulated in my youth. The Dick Tracy wrist television is reality. The Jetson’s flying car is still struggling along in the development laboratory. We’ll get there eventually. Whatever we can imagine we can usually figure out how to build given enough time and money.

Yes, my sixteen year old self would be flabbergasted by how much for granted I take my job and the technology that I own and use daily. When I was sixteen I was already interested in computers. They were still big cabinets that lived in special air-conditioned rooms with access to them restricted to elite operators. This would soon change as computers got smaller and cheaper. Soon academic science and mathematic departments in state institutes of higher education could afford desktop computers that cost a fraction of what their mainframe big brothers did.

By the time I had spent a couple of years in college, the age of the personal computer was dawning. The last trip to the moon, Apollo 17, was several years in the rear view mirror. The Space Shuttle flight was almost a decade in the future. NASA had lost some of it’s luster, if only temporarily. The hard core space fanatics of my generation were still following every development with relish but the typical American of the time had their mind on other issues.

I joined the Army because I needed a job to support my growing family. I knew one thing when I talked to the recruiter. I wanted as much computer training as I could get. I asked for the longest school that involved computers. I was steered toward a job repairing the computer systems in the Pershing Missile system. It was a turning point in my life. Instead of becoming a Film Maker or a Musician I became a Computer Programmer.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.