Mark Shuttleworth, a South African Internet tycoon who paid tens of millions of dollars to go to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz craft, recounts his arrival in space–blinking, wondering, and weightless after the fire, shaking, and acceleration of liftoff–in Adam Fisher’s oral history of space tourism (“‘Very Stunning, Very Space, and Very Cool’”):
The thing I remember as being quite striking was this collection of very domestic sounds that kicks in after the main-engine cutoff. Mechanical sounds, like the air circulation and the conditioning, and then bits and pieces are kind of kicking in. You’ve got alarm clocks and fans, and you’ve got a big device called the “globus.” It’s a ball–your map, basically–that turns, and it starts going tick, tick, tick, like a cuckoo clock. You’ve just gone through this extraordinary experience of getting into space, and then suddenly it’s like waking up inside the workshop of an old Swiss clockmaker or something. So it’s this amazing contrast between what you might expect–which should involve special effects and background music–and the very mechanical physical reality of it.
Thus, even the most transcendental of real, human experiences (which Saul Bellow, in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, evoked, wonderfully: “To blow this great blue, white, green planet or to be blown from it”) occurs amid the most mundane technology.
That technology can be very old. The space tourist Charles Simonyi, a former Microsoft executive responsible for Word and Excel, whom we profiled two years ago (“Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Meta,” January/February 2007), describes the optical sight on the Soyuz: “It’s like a very old-fashioned–I don’t know what it is. There is nothing, no items like that anymore. … That instrument could have been constructed in the 19th century.”
Famously, the Russian space program employs a brutalist approach: its engineers use the crudest, oldest technology that works. (Since the first Soyuz flew in 1966, only those parts that have failed or are obviously obsolete have been redesigned.) But the technology aboard the space station, much of which was constructed by the U.S. and European space agencies as well as the Russian, is only a little shinier. Simonyi says, “The space station is so messy. Words don’t do justice. It’s like going into the messiest hardware store you have ever seen.”
Because they are professional futurists, technologists like to contemplate new, bright, and disruptive technologies. Often, by a process of substitution, they talk about the newest iterations of things as if they were the only things people actually use. But our spaceships disclose a universal truth: old technologies are seldom abandoned, and only when they are intolerably inconvenient. (The former financial analyst Pip Coburn calls the moment when a “perceived crisis” is worse than the “perceived pain of adoption” of a new technology the “Change Function”; see “Who’s Sorry Now?”, May/June 2006.) Mainly, however, old technologies accumulate like geological strata, changing under the pressure of new circumstances.