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Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Having the space program as a very challenging real-world mission to focus tech development around was tremendously inspiring and productive

"Having the space program as a very challenging real-world mission to focus tech development around was tremendously inspiring and productive." --Scott Fisher, founding director, Virtual Environment Workstation Project at NASA Ames

A half-century of space flight
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Sputnik launch on October 4, we take a look back at some of the ships that have helped humans explore space and some of those that might do so in the near future. Forget about the Xbox and the iPhone. This is some serious hardware.

The launch of the basketball-size satellite is widely considered the dawn of the space age, and began the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

In 1955, both the United States and the Soviet Union announced plans to launch satellites into orbit as part of the International Geophysical Year, which had been established to take place from the middle of 1957 through the end of 1958.

The U.S. may have announced its plans first, but the U.S.S.R. got off the ground startlingly fast. Sputnik I, pictured at left, launched October 4, 1957, raising fears among Americans that it gave the Soviet Union a leg up on the U.S. not only technologically, but in the ability to launch nuclear missiles.

Sputnik II, carrying a dog named Laika and a much heavier payload, soon followed, launching only a month later on November 3.

For anyone who's ever been stuck in rush-hour traffic on U.S. Highway 101 through Silicon Valley, the region's overgrowth of green-glass office buildings, ugly tech company headquarters and expensive cars is a frustrating flip side to the steady stream of world-changing innovation that has emerged there.

But if you'd visited the region in 1930, all you'd have seen was a two-lane highway cutting through acres and acres of nothing but farmland and tiny hamlets, and not even a hint of what would someday become arguably the most important commercial technology center in the world.
In December of that year, however, word came that the U.S. Navy was going to open an air station in Sunnyvale, Calif., one that would handle gigantic airships and that would need a mammoth hangar.

The result? The Sunnyvale Naval Air Station, later known as NASA Moffett Field. And today, Moffett is home to NASA's Ames Research Center, a facility that is at the heart of Silicon Valley, both geographically and figuratively. In 1930 the region didn't know what was about to arrive, but it soon realized how much change was coming.

"Industries allied to aviation will spring up like mushrooms, each bringing its own payroll," wrote the San Jose Mercury Herald in 1931, according to NASA. "It means in short that San Jose and the Bay region are on the threshold of the most glorious era of posterity in their history."

Usually, such proclamations fall short of reality, but on this the newspaper was spot on. While the projected growth was expected to be tied to aviation, not space research, the arrival in 1939 of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics--the precursor to NASA--and later NASA itself helped drag the Valley into the center of American industry.

Of course, Silicon Valley has grown way beyond NASA since the Apollo program was leaning on researchers from Stanford, nearby University of California at Berkeley and a number of small companies that started to dot the area in the 1960s. But in the crucial early years of the Valley's technology industry, government contracts played a key role.

"Several companies in what would become Silicon Valley benefited from the ambitious goals and budget largesse of the Apollo space program," said Dag Spicer, the senior curator of the Computer History Museum, in Mountain View, Calif. "The stringent quality and performance requirements of (integrated circuits) for Apollo allowed early semiconductor companies to learn at government (that is, public) expense, a technology that would soon have broad application and whose price would plummet as these companies perfected manufacturing methods."

A list of companies that emerged to take advantage of NASA's work on integrated circuits would be impossible to compile today, but there's no doubt that among the biggest winners on such a list would be Fairchild Semiconductor, and Intel, which was founded by Fairchild's Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore.

"Fairchild...was likely the largest recipient of government-related integrated circuit work," said Spicer. "The irony of these early contracts was that, while they were welcome in the early 1960s (when) semiconductor companies were learning how to make integrated circuits, by 1970, government/military work was frequently viewed as a damper on profits and innovation since it took people and resources away from research and development into newer and more profitable commercial products."

Nonetheless, the Apollo program turned out to be a fantastic source of technology that would eventually find its way into commercial products and applications. Also among the companies that would most benefit from the program was Hewlett-Packard. HP's association with the space program, in fact, pre-dates NASA, according to Measure magazine.

"HP's instrument sales force has been selling to the space program since the 1950s, before NASA was formally created," wrote Measure magazine in 1983, according to information provided by Devon Dawson, an archivist for HP spinoff Agilent Technologies. "NASA and its contractors use instruments from virtually every HP division to develop, test and support the sophisticated electronic equipment used in all NASA programs."

Specific instances of the HP-NASA alliance on the Apollo 11 program abound, Measure wrote in its September 1969 issue: The launch control facility at Cape Kennedy and Houston's Mission Control Center both utilized HP technology such as FM-AM telemetering signal generators and RF vector impedance meters. And, HP's Precision Frequency Source keyed to a cesium clock built by the company "provided the precise frequency outputs used for thousandths-of-a-second accuracy throughout the worldwide Apollo network of tracking stations and communications systems."

The relationship between HP and NASA has stayed strong, Dawson said. Among the space programs employing HP or Agilent technology are space shuttle missions, Mariner missions, Voyager 2, the 1995 docking of the Atlantis shuttle with the Mir Space Station and the Lunar Prospector in 1997.

But the impact of the Apollo program on commercial technology goes far beyond such highly specialized equipment and missions. According to Bruce Damer, founder of the DigiBarn computer museum and a frequent NASA contractor himself through his company DigitalSpace, it's possible to draw a direct evolutionary link between the simple flight simulators NASA was using for the Apollo astronauts in 1967 and 1968--what he called "one of the first highly interactive computer environments"--and some of the early commercial video games.

Similarly, NASA's work with wind tunnels at Moffett became so expensive that the agency decided to turn to supercomputers for more cost-effective simulations.

And that, in conjunction with work done at Ames on tele-operations and telepresence--research that tried to simulate the interior of the space shuttle--led to the creation of 3D graphics, head-mounted displays and early virtual reality technology, all partially funded by NASA.

"Starting in the 1960s, as the needs became more necessary...I think that drove the research on graphics tech and certainly computing in general," said Scott Fisher, chair of the interactive media division in the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, and the founding director of the Virtual Environment Workstation Project (VIEW) at NASA Ames. "When we built a real-time virtual environment system and the flow visualization guys used it to input their data, they were ecstatic that they could manipulate viewpoints into their data by just moving their head or walking around in the data as opposed to typing in a set of coordinates for each new viewpoint."

Another technology to come out of NASA and later find its way into industry was the use of audio technology in pilots' computerized interfaces, said Fisher.

"NASA did lots of work on finding the best ways to alert a pilot to some system problem," Fisher said. "Audio turned out to be very effective." Now, nearly 20 years later, the technology is making its way into video games and other off-the-shelf commercial systems, he said.

The relationship between NASA and space technologies and Silicon Valley and the companies that have blossomed there may best have been summed up by Northrop Grumman chairman and CEO Ronald Sugar in a speech he gave on September 20 at the 50th Anniversary of Space Exploration conference in Pasadena, Calif.

"Space exploration and use has created new industries that today generate billions of dollars of revenue, employ millions of people worldwide and improve the lives of virtually everyone," said Sugar. "Space, which first served as a coliseum for two grappling superpowers, now welcomes new nations to explore and utilize its potential, and in the process, draws all mankind closer together."

Of course, for those who work or worked in the space industry, the experience of being involved with such technologies and seeing how they affected the rest of the world is something that will always be special.

"Having the space program as a very challenging real-world mission to focus tech development around was tremendously inspiring and productive," said Fisher.

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