Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Sound of Technology

I taught a class on space missions earlier this year, and suggested some space-related music to break the grind of studying. There is of course The Planets by Holst. I feel the John Glenn launch scene in The Right Stuff, accompanied by Holst, justifies the entire space program There's also some pop music --- "Space Oddity", famously performed in space by astronaut Chris Hadfield (lots of people think it's called "Major Tom") and a weird song called "Let X=X" by Laurie Anderson that includes the line "Satellites are out tonight." I warned my students away from "Rocket Man" by Elton John. It's an anti-space song --- he says that Mars is no place to raise your kids and is cold as hell.

Personally, I find it impossible to work with music playing; I can't concentrate. But for some reason I've developed certain...hypotheses...about the music people listened to while they were making some kind of groundbreaking technical advance.

It is said that most people who worked on the Apollo program were under 30. Someone who was 30 at the height of the Apollo program in 1966 would have been 18 in 1954 and most likely in the pre-rock demographic. So, while I would like to think someone had "Good Vibrations" cued up during key structural dynamics tests, I don't think a lot of rock was played in the workshops of Apollo.

But, around 1970, everything changed. Before 1970, astronauts looked like this:

Gordo Cooper, 1963

Then something got into the Houston water supply, and astronauts started looking like this:

Garriott, Owen K.
Owen Garriott, aboard Skylab in 1973

To be fair, it's hard to shave in space, but that is some handlebar he's got going there.

So I think after 1970, say during the planning for the later Apollo missions, someone was listening to "Aquarius" by the surprisingly nonwhite Fifth Dimension. I can't be sure they named the Apollo 13 LM after that song, but if the Apollo 10 CSM could be named after a comic strip character, anything is possible.

Then they moved on the the Shuttle. For the sole reason that the Shuttle was designed in Downey, California, and the Carpenters were from Downey, California, I always imagine someone drawing up the body flap for the Orbiter with "Close to You" on the radio. The Carpenters also recorded a song called "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft" but that was far too silly. We engineers are conservative folk, even when we're designing ass-kicking rockets.

How about another technical field? Steve Jobs made no secret of the fact that he was a huge fan of countercultural music like Dylan and the Beatles, but let's face it, Jobs was no engineer. His biggest contribution to the Apple II was probably the case. On the other hand, Steve Wozniak, who designed the entire freaking computer nearly single-handed, did so while listening to 8:05 by Moby Grape. My evidence? I have none. Woz just seems like a Moby Grape kind of guy.

Jobs, if you play the White Album one more time, I'm gonna assault you with this soldering iron. (Kidding. Steve Wozniak is too nice to say something like that.)

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