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Publication Date: 06/1/2010
Archive >  June 2010 Issue >  Tech-Op-Ed > 

Thumbing a Ride
Walter Salm, Editor
It was the summer of 1952, between my freshman and sophomore years at Union College. I was in a tough course of study as a physics major, and I managed to get a coveted summer job with General Electric working as an electronics technician at the company's super-secret guided missile test facility at Malta, NY, near Ballston Spa. The FBI investigated me and gave me the needed Top Secret clearance. Every morning, I would be picked up a block from the college campus in Schenectady — where I stayed over the summer — by an olive-drab-painted school bus for the 30-minute commute to a military installation that was staffed entirely by civilians. While there, I was able to get really close and personal with real-life rocket engines, which were very disappointing to me.

At the time, the current technology consisted mainly of modified World War 2 German V-2 rockets, with a propensity to explode or catch fire on the test stand. The top of each concrete blockhouse was covered with grass; the dirt thus held in place was expected to capture safely any flying metal shrapnel from an exploding rocket. My job was mainly to install and wire hundreds of Honeywell strip-chart recorders in blockhouse instrumentation rooms. These units would consume miles of chart paper during a test rocket firing. The work was mostly underground, which was comfortably cool during an otherwise sultry summer. My disappointment in the job was to see up close and realistically how dreadfully crude our rocket technology was; I became convinced that I would never live long enough to see men land on the moon. How wrong I was about that.

At some point during the summer, I wangled a visit to the company's main plant where I was ushered into the presence of their one resident computer. That too was disappointing. What I saw was the wall of a room covered by vacuum tubes behind a Plexiglas panel, with far less computing power than the most rudimentary home game machine that surfaced in 1979. It wasn't really earning a living, but served as a springboard for some research. At that time, the most successful computers were not digital, but analog systems — totally mechanical, but useful for solving difficult problems nonetheless.

In spite of these disillusionments, I was able to witness and live with and write about incredible technological leaps during the decades to follow. My first visit to a semiconductor fab came in the early l960s, where our tour guide proudly showed off the ICs they were making that contained 12 to 14 transistors on a chip, and confided to us that they were working on the next generation of ICs that would contain a whopping 100 transistors. It all just seemed so incredible at the time. My prized pocket-size transistor radio worked just fine using 5 discrete transistors; ICs were still too costly for this type of consumer product.

This was also the era when the entire world started to worry about the threat of an all-out nuclear holocaust. Building underground fallout shelters in the backyard became the goal of those homeowners who had the money to spend, and the Federal government built huge, secret A-bomb-proof bunkers to shelter top government officials and lawmakers. Today, those bunkers have become historical curiosities, with their very old supplies of canned foods and water and rather quaint vacuum-tube short-wave emergency radios.

Now NASA is on the verge of phasing out the Space Shuttle Program, and with good reason. The remaining shuttles are old and tired, and this can certainly lead to unsafe operating conditions. Yet this is happening with no replacement space vehicle program in place. Yes, it costs money that's simply not available, but we can't just let the Space Program disappear, or can we? Over the years, it has so often been the incubator and source for many technological developments that we take for granted today. Are we going to end up renting rocket rides from the Russians? Or perhaps we should count on some new space developments from the private sector? I personally, given the choice, would far prefer to fly into orbit aboard an outmoded NASA Shuttle than thumb a ride with someone else. But that's my personal prejudice, and it may turn out to be very impractical. Time will tell.  

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