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Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Persistence of Form

Like most everyone else, I was blown away by the European Space Agency's recent successful mission to land a vehicle on a comet. After a ten year, four billion mile journey, the tiny Philae spacecraft landed on a three-mile long piece of rock moving through space at forty-thousand miles per hour. Incredible is an understatement! There was well-deserved jubilation in ESA's control center.

ESA circa 2014
When I looked at the pictures of the ESA's mission control room, I was struck by how little had changed in fifty years since the images of NASA's Mission Control in the Apollo moon project became so familiar to us.

NASA circa 1970

The computational power behind the NASA control room was less than what you can find today in an ordinary laptop computer. Yet, the design of Mission Control has not changed much despite the incredible leap forward in technology. You see the same consoles with screens and buttons. The same rows of positions facing the large screens on the wall displaying statistics and parameters. You see the same low level of light giving the room a hushed, monastic presence. I remember the sci-fi movie, Minority Report, from 2002 that had Tom Cruise standing at a large glass panel where he moved and manipulated data with his special gloves.  Certainly, that theatrical image was intended to convey advanced technological control capability. And yet, here we are fifty years after Apollo and both the ESA and NASA rooms look virtually the same. Why?

Tom Cruise, Minority Report, 2002

The control rooms are a great example of the old adage, "form follows function." The rooms look the same because they provide the best way to fulfill the function. Nothing too deep about that. But what might change it? What would make this form no longer the best way to answer the functional need? Would everyone be wearing Google Glasses and hence no longer need to see a screen on the wall? Would the mission controllers be able to work from home in their bathrobes during the critical phases of the mission? I doubt it.

Think of business conference rooms. They have changed hardly a hair in over a century. Of course there has been the introduction of new technology. First it was the old overhead transparency projector which was replaced by a cable connection to allow a laptop to project an image on the screen. But the room, the long table with chairs on either side and the chairperson seated at the end, remains the same. It is the best way to allow everyone to have a "seat at the table", to fully participate in the meeting. Today we can have remote meeting via Skype but it never works quite as well as the conference room with everyone present. I wonder if those rooms will ever be replaced entirely?

Maybe it is because as people working towards a common objective, we need to be together. Our physical presence allows the non-verbal cues to be easily perceived. Silence can say as much as words. Actions can be decided upon quickly when necessary. More than that, we have a feeling of shared responsibility and shared reward that comes from being physically together to do the job.  We are, after all, tribal in our primal essence and we want to belong to the tribe. The conference room replaced the campfire circle.

So will mission control centers or conference rooms (or a thousand other forms in our lives) change? I suppose they will but our need for community will never go away. As we move into an increasingly virtual world, we will have to find a way for our online avatars to be able to not only speak but feel for us. I don't think it will happen soon.

[For a great tour of NASA's Johnson Space Flight Center Mission Control, read the blog by Lee Hutchinson on Ars Technica.]

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