You think that traveling on earth is fraught with challenges ? You think that being mugged and having your passport stolen is the worst of all possible outcomes ? You think that sleeping on the lawn outside of your nation’s embassy until it re-opens after the holiday is a tall tale your grandkids simply won’t believe ?
Did you also watch too much Star Trek growing up, imagining yourself aboard the Enterprise, sitting in the bar playing a three-dimensional chess game with Whoopi Goldberg ? Or have you guzzled so many gallons of Elon Musk’s puppet-jizm that you imagine yourself boarding a SpaceX shuttle to Mars sometime in the next decade, and in doing so becoming an interplanetary pioneer who will go down in history alongside the European greats like Cortez and Columbus for your establishment of post-apocalyptic earth settlements ? i
Colour me unimpressed with your fancies and fantasies. Space travel – the exploration of life beyond terra firma – isn’t for you. Quite simply, it’s too hard and you suck too much. As Charles Fishman recounts :
The procedure to get into the space suits and out the hatch is a 400-step checklist. And you don’t want to skip too many of those steps.” Four hundred steps, just to get one astronaut ready to float into the station’s air lock and prepare to egress.
You think it’s all bubblegum, blowjobs, and backrubs up there eh ? Nuh-uh. Not a chance. Four-hundred steps just to put on a space suit when you can’t handle 10 steps to make a paper wallet or create and register a PGP key ? Seriously. Space is obscenely, impossibly, literally nauseatingly demanding even for the most well-educated, physically fit, and mentally disciplined pilots-cum-PhDs-cum-astronauts,ii nevermind the usual raft of johnny-come-latelys.
Space is for adults and its human exploration is by adults. This is true all the way down to the software used in the shuttle.iii
Kinda like Bitcoin, y’know ? What with our lack of physical territory, our ability to jump from cloud to cloud to cloud, barely touching our feet to the verdant fields and miresome muck below, and our sky-high barriers to entry. How very unfair, wouldn’t you say ?
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- Oh, you need to escape planet earth because your life here is no fun and global shwarming is hiding under your bed at night ready to flood all the coastal cities and dry up all the fresh water lakes ? Too bad!1
This is the only planet you’ve got and the only life you’ve got on it. There are no virgins waiting for you in socialist space heaven. So carpe diem or step aside, yo. [↩]
- For an easy read on the subject, I recommend you pick up Chris Hadfield’s book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything. [↩]
- Check out this other Fishman piece from 1996/1997, in which he spells out the stringency of software that just has to work :
Its the world made famous, romantic, even inevitable by stories out of Sun Microsystems, Microsoft, and Netscape. It’s not the story of the on-board shuttle group. Their quarters are a study in white-collar pedestrian. The most striking thing is how ordinary they look. Other than the occasional bit of shuttle memorabilia, you could be in the offices of any small company or government agency. Everyone has his or her own small office, and the offices have desks, PCs, and sparse personal artifacts. People wear moderately dressy clothes to work, neat but nothing flashy, certainly nothing grungy.
It’s strictly an 8-to-5 kind of place — there are late nights, but they’re the exception. The programmers are intense, but low-key. Many of them have put in years of work either for IBM (which owned the shuttle group until 1994), or directly on the shuttle software. They’re adults, with spouses and kids and lives beyond their remarkable software program.
That’s the culture: the on-board shuttle group produces grown-up software, and the way they do it is by being grown-ups. It may not be sexy, it may not be a coding ego-trip — but it is the future of software. When you’re ready to take the next step — when you have to write perfect software instead of software that’s just good enough — then it’s time to grow up.
“Most people choose to spend their money at the wrong end of the process,” says Munson. “In the modern software environment, 80% of the cost of the software is spent after the software is written the first time — they don’t get it right the first time, so they spend time flogging it. In shuttle, they do it right the first time. And they don’t change the software without changing the blueprint. That’s why their software is so perfect.”
The paradigmatic torch carried by NASA for that singular and singularly glorious generation will henceforth be carried forward by Bitcoin, The Most Serene Republic Of~. Like all good things, really.