Impossible In Perspective

Yesterday I wrote about the SpaceX accomplishment of landing a reusable first stage on a barge in the middle of the ocean, noting that the seemingly impossible is always that way until someone goes ahead and does it anyway. In part I wrote:

“…so I was sitting out in my car watching the whole thing, live, on my cell phone.”

Trivial, eh? Everybody watches video on their phone, it’s where we get our news, our entertainment, where we socialize, how we stay in touch. I can have a video chat with my kids (or anyone else) via Skype, practically for free, even though they might be on three different continents.

Trivial, or impossible?

Let’s say you could give that phone to the 2000 version of you. Your phone at that point, if you had one, was a Blackberry, a Palm Pilot (which actually was not a phone, but a PDA), or a flip phone. No video. No memory to speak of. No music. No camera. No internet connection. No color screens, hi-def or low. No maps. No GPS (military use only on dedicated equipment that was the size of a suitcase). No games. No apps. That “iPhone” was still over five years in the future, not even other than a pre-pre-pre-pre-development idea being kicked around in a back room in Cupertino.

You had cell phone service, which was likely to suck, was expensive as hell, was measured by the minute, had long-distance charges up the yahzoo even if you were calling in-state, and only millionaires called internationally. Oh, if you had a fancy one it might have a pager built in, or maybe even this new and amazing ability to type in a “text message” and send it to someone else.

Sixteen freakin’ years ago.

Set the time machine back another decade and a half, to 1985. Cell phones didn’t exist. Some of the rich and elite had “car phones” which were glorified two-way radios hardwired into the car. Computers had floppy disks, most people didn’t even dream of ever having one, and a “portable” computer was better described as “luggable.” A 30-pound “portable” computer with a built-in monochrome monitor just barely bigger than the iPhone in my pocket right now, dual floppy disks, and a 80-column dot-matrix printer cost over $10,000. (Ask me how I know!)

The big thing in entertainment was cable television, with two or three networks showing actual movies! Or you could buy your favorite movies on VHS tapes, sometimes in less than two years after the movie was in the theater! Music was either on cassette or on one of those incredibly expensive and super fancy “compact disc” players. Books were books – you had a choice between hardback and paperback. The Amazon was a river in South America, so if you wanted something by mail order you got out the Sears catalog and waited for the US Post Office to deliver it in a week (or two).

Thirty freakin’ years ago.

You get the drift. Many of you are not old pharts like me, so you might not understand on a visceral level, but you know that there was a time when there were three (or even just two) television networks, maybe a local television channel if you were in the big city, color television was a fad, and the TV went to a test pattern  before midnight and didn’t come back on until 6:00 AM or so. There was no AM radio, and “stereo” was all the rage for buying records. There were no satellites, weather forecasts might be good for the next 24-hours, and cross-country air travel was a two-day ordeal. (Okay, it still can be, but for completely different reasons. Focus!)

Sixty freakin’ years ago.

The point being that if Paul 6.0 could communicate with the President of CalTech or MIT, it would be a tough conversation if for no other reason than about 99% of the things that we absolutely take for granted every single day were not even fantasized about then. The best and the brightest of 1956 would think you were certifiably insane if you could show them around your living room.

Go back two hundred years and you would be burned for being a witch.

Yesterday it was commonplace to watch live video simultaneously from orbit and from a drone over the middle of the Atlantic, but it was amazing to watch a reusable rocket land on a barge.

In ten years, when it’s so commonplace to see rocket boosters flying back and landing after a launch that they don’t get a second glance from the commuters on the freeway near the spaceport, what will we be amazed at because someone just did the impossible?

In thirty years?

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