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Sunday, May 2, 2010

The History of the Space Center Continues

Hello Troops,
The history of the Space Center continues in this post by Bill Schuler. Thanks Bill for getting this written so we have a real history. My memories of those old days have either evaporated or have been forgotten for sanity's sake. Please read. I know its long and some of you younglings aren't into 'Long Reads' (the texting generation) but you'll really appreciated how nice it is today compared to the old days when the Center first opened its doors in 1990.

And now Bill's Post.

As it Was
by Bill Schuler

Here we are, once again.

Note: Before continuing with the saga of the "Pizza Guy" I thought I would give an outline of the physical layout of the Space Center the way it was when it opened. Precious few records of that time exist so most of you really haven't any idea just how primitive the facilities were when compared to the current layout. This may give you a little more prospective on how far we have come. Also keep in mind that the Voyager was it! No other ship existed.

As it Was

Picture in your mind the bridge of Voyager in school year 1991-1992. The layout was not unlike it is today. Communications on the lower level, Right and Left Wing on the mid level, and some unoccupied areas on the top level. Also on the top level, where the Engineering Station now is, sat a large Plexiglas Box with a remote robot arm inside.

Back in those days the Captain's position was on the lower level with the communications
people. Security was a rather nebulous position which had no official status and no formal
station. The top level where the Command dais, security, and science stations are now located were unoccupied. Desks were in place but no computers. These desks were usually either unoccupied or had observers sitting at them.

One day, while a group of Jr. High students were doing a mission, the appointed Captain
removed herself from the Captain's chair and planted herself on the desk on the highest level. Through the microphone Vic told her to go back to her station. The Captain replied "Thank you very much but her current position was much more practical for observing the bridge than the official location. This was one of those "Daaaa!!!!" moments and from that time on the Command station was moved to it's current location. Security eventually took over the desk where today's security station sits; with the exception that it faced out to the bridge rather than in to the wall. Records and Science stations eventually filled the remaining desk on the top level. I miss those desks. They made such wonderful barricades. One pirate, if he or she knew what they were doing, could hold the entire bridge against the crew by using the captain's desk as cover. Oh the memories!!!

Back then the computers consisted of an assortment of Apple Macintosh computers. These
puppies were the single box, all in one machines with 9 1/2" black and white screens featuring four, count them four, shades of gray! and hard drives significantly smaller than today's typical iPod. They sat, semi recessed into the desks.

Mission control was pretty sparse. Vic's station was in the same position, with a microphone , a couple of Audio tape players and a music CD player. The CD player had a capacity of 1 CD! These were all tied together with a primitive soundboard which controlled the volume of the various devices. All sound that was generated by these devices stored on tape or Commercial CD.(At the time it was not possible to burn a CD.) No sound computers existed as of yet to store or provide sound effects. During a mission Vic would have something like 30 or 40 Audio tapes carefully arraigned in front of him. How he kept track of them, I will never know, but rare was the time when there was no sound and music on the bridge. As of yet there was no voice distorter to create different voices. All the various voices came out of your own throat.

What would now be described as the "Second Chair" consisted of a couple of Macs that saw all of the computers on the bridge. In those days (As Brian Hawkings described in his post) we used a devilish program know as Timbuktu to see and control the other computers. This was not what you would consider ideal. Timbuktu allowed you to see a computer on the bridge and control it if necessary but it was very awkward. The guy (no gals yet) in charge of that station looked at the screens and would tell Vic if a certain crewman was operating his or her station correctly. There were something like 17 computers on the bridge and 2 computers at Second Chair to monitor them. Remember these computers have 9 1/2 inch screens! What you had to do is tile all the
computer screens from the bridge onto these 2 Mission Control monitors. Using this system a crewman would do something (or not), Second Chair would monitor the action and then
verbally relay to Vic whether it was done correctly. Woe be to the inattentive Second Chair.

This system in addition to being very labor and verbal communication intensive was very slow. since you were virtually seeing and controlling all the computers using very narrow bandwidth with very chatty software, they were, by today's standards, unacceptably slow in their response time. But at the time it was all we had.

Next to Second Chair was the Video Station. All visuals ran through this station just as they do now. Three devices made up this station; 2 video tape players and 1 laser disk player. One VCR would play the mission tape, the other would play stars and the Laser disk would do whatever. As today a switch box allowed you to switch from one device to another.

Mission tapes at that time were austere affairs. Ships moving in front of planets, Through wormholes etc. Footage was exclusively from the Star Trek films. Vic did the tapes in those days. They were recorded using the two consumer VHS players at the Video station. With no time base correction the copies were noticeably less pristine than the original. One of the major problems using this type of equipment is your edits. Without insert edit capability (This required a special type of tape head not usually installed on consumer machines) each edit has to reestablish the the track resulting in a huge signal degradation lasting several seconds. There was a way to avoid this. By pausing in the record mode and unpausing with a new clip you could reduce transition disturbance to something approaching acceptable. The downside to using the pause was that it would last only three minutes, then the machine would automatically turn itself off leaving you, once again with a huge signal break. The play VCR also had a speed control so the playback could be slowed down to stretch out the shot. While it stretched the length of the shot it also created a noticeable strobe and jerkiness (no frame blending way back then).

The majority of the images used back then came from a Laser Disk player, a technology that dated from the early 80's. It's introduction into the consumer market was hampered by the versatility of the VHS tape recorder. It wasn't until a decade later that the merits of the Laser Disk began to be appreciated by the consumer public. The disk itself was that size of one of those LP platters that were the norm for storing music prior to the introduction of the CD. The disk when placed into the player would be scanned by a laser and this data would be translated into video and audio signals. It's main advantage over the VHS tape was it's superior digital image and sound. Another great feature was the disk was a random access device, you could program in chapter codes to immediately access the particular image you wanted. This was not possible with tape, which had to be forwarded and reversed sequentially. The Laser Disk was a big hit in education circles because of the huge amount of data that could be stored and retrieved on demand.

Vic used several Disks distributed by NASA. The video person had a list of chapter codes to quickly bring up the appropriate images. This remarkable piece of equipment surged back
onto the consumer market in the early 90's when people recognized the medium's obvious image and sound quality advantages over VHS Tape, So superior, in fact, that if you recorded a Laser Disk image onto video tape, that recorded image had a greater quality than a commercially recorded VHS tape. This technology virtually disappeared in the mid 90's with the introduction and meteoric rise of the DVD .

Back in those prehistoric days, there was one more position in mission control, Tactical! The tactical computer, once again, one of those little Mac's was set up on a desk where the stairs leading to decontanimation are now. It in turn was connected to a state of the art LCD screen that sat on top of an old fashioned overhead projector which in turn flashed the LCD screen image onto the tactical window. The image was black and white, or rather blue and yellow. This set up was very temperamental. The easiest way to get Vic into a bad mood was to mess with this setup.

At that time Vic had no direct control of the Tactical computer. A staff member had to man that device to get images to move, by clicking and dragging. By doing so the staff member would move the Voyager out of Space Dock, dodge torpedo's, maneuver through asteroid fields etc. Again this called for a lot of verbal communication to coordinate. The actions on the tactical screen had to match what was going on in the rest of the story. At that time, the most important prerequisite for being a staff member was that one had to be telepathic.

And that is the way it was. nothing like the level of integration we enjoy today. Despite the shortcomings of the Center this was truly it's Golden Age.

More on that to Come.

Bill Schuler
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