If there's one phrase I associate with the future, it's control panels. You know, the gleaming, custom built set of controls that provide a direct interface to the advanced machines that we use in our every day lives, here in the futuristic world of the 21st century.
But a funny thing happened along the way to that vision: we invented general-purpose computers, some small enough to fit in your hand, and made them cheap enough that most people could buy one or three. And those mundane consumer devices began to show up in the most extreme places -- and in some cases, to complement or even displace the equipment that was already there.
With the International Space Station, the human race has finally built a long-lived, honest-to-goodness spaceship -- even if it never gets more than a few hundred miles from the earth's surface. The word "spaceship," of course, evokes images of gleaming banks of computers built into the ship's bulkheads, ready to control its various systems. It doesn't exactly summon up the image of an ordinary laptop, of the sort that would be used by a typical white-collar worker on Earth, being used for crucial tasks. But that's exactly what astronauts use, with IBM ThinkPads playing important roles on the station.
Those ThinkPads had to be rigorously certified to work with the Space Station, of course; you can't just plug any Windows laptop into the ISS's systems willy-nilly. That doesn't mean that astronauts have to be completely separated from their beloved gadgets, though: a recent unmanned resupply mission brought iPads up to play with, though don't expect the station's robotic arm to be controlled by an iOS app any time soon.
People setting out to sea in the Navy are not going to be as isolated as astronauts, but they'll still be away from their families, friends, and the omnipresent entertainment/information networks civilians take for granted for months at a time. Many people enlisting today -- especially young adults who've spent their whole lives online -- are naturally anxious about separation from their gadgets, which led to some interesting questions for Yahoo! Answers on the subject. The consensus: both the U.S. Navy and the U.K.'s Royal Navy will allow you to bring your laptop, iPod, and other gadgets with you when you ship out -- but you won't be able to connect to the Internet.
A 2009 incident might have given some pause about the wisdom of this policy: the USS Hartford collided with the USS New Orleans in the Straight of Hormuz, and an investigation revealed that, among other lapses, the Hartford's navigator was jamming to his tunes on his iPod at the time. But since the same could have happened with a Walkman or vintage-era transistor radio, perhaps we shouldn't lay the blame entirely at the feet of high tech.
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