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June 30th, 2015

Linux: Boldly Going Where We’ve Not Gone Before

I wasn’t in search of a hero when I found him.

Burt Rutan signed autographs on that blistering hot June day in the Mojave desert. His collection of engineers, scientists and “enterprise rouges” shouldered their way into front page news. SpaceShipOne had just become the first civilian aircraft/spacecraft to carry the first civilian pilot into space. His pilot for that epic flight into space, Mike Melvill, was the first recognized and licensed space pilot on the planet. How about that as “your most shining achievement” on a future resume? Burt Ratan and his company, Applied Composites, took home the ten million dollar prize offered by SpaceX. They fulfilled all of the requirements, to include everyone being alive upon landing.

Mike Melville & Burt Ratan

Mike Melvill and Burt Rutan speak to the media after SpaceShipOne’s first flight into Space. Photo by Don Logan

Yeah, I believe that stipulation was hard-coded into the contest’s requirements. Everyone gets a hero’s parade, not a solemn funeral procession.

I was a member of the crowd that gathered in the high country desert for the flight and the homecoming of SpaceShipOne. We planned our trip in order to be early. We were sure that a couple of hundred people would show up for this history-in-the-making event.

“A few hundred,” I said to myself as we began seeing the signs about where we could and could not go. About two miles from where we thought we could park they began to get dire. Warnings by the military that you could get shot for trespassing on military reserves.

“Shot,” I said to myself.

I watched carefully in the gloomy dawn, looking for those signs. Obviously I encountered none.

Three friends made the road trip from Phoenix to watch the take off and landing of SpaceShipOne. We jostled our way to the area where most of the crowd would be ushered when the landing was imminent. It reminded me of a Greatful Dead concert. I wanted to be as close to the landing and the greeting as possible. I was glad I was early. twelve thousand people were there to see the world’s first civilian astronaut.

SpaceShipOne

SpaceShipOne

We looked like idiots standing by ourselves, until the time when some of the early folks figured it out. We were right up front for the landing and subsequent glad-handing. We were at the “press” line, and I was able to meet and shake hands with history.

The lady standing next to me got her hat autographed and thanked Rutan for being a hero.

“I’m far from a hero, ma’am. This guy…this guy is the hero”. He jerked his head to my right, indicating that he was talking about Mike Melvill.

The words came from the mouth of Burt Rutan himself, who’s been hailed as a genius, hero and maverick, depending on who’s doing the talking — I’ll leave the assignment of the adjective to you. His compositing design and engineering literally turned the aviation world on its ear, so much so that six of his composite aircraft now hang from the ceiling of the Smithsonian Institute. Oh, and did I mention that he built and piloted the first airplane to circle the earth without refueling?

“Oh yeah…that Burt Rutan” you say to yourself with a slap to the forehead.

I wrestled and played baseball during my high school and some of my college years. I don’t care who the coach was or how long he had been coaching, every one of them would, at one time or another, use the “team member” blurb. “Now go out there and win! There is no ‘I’ in team!” As a high school kid with no real world experience, that little quote got me fired up enough to block out any questioning of the coach and leave the locker room to do his bidding.

“Yeah,” I would think to myself. “Team player, Team winner “Go, G0, GOOOO!”

I’m sure every high school sporting coach today uses that expression to light a fire under his players. I am just as sure that it’s used by many auditorium filled “Rah, Rah, Rah” sessions in the corporate world. Have you ever watched or been present at one of those meetings? Are any of you now mentally pulling up one such Steve Ballmer episode?

But if there is no “I” in team, who started the whole thing? These achievements were born of sleepless nights and missed birthdays, anniversaries and dinners. Extremely important decisions were made, for better or worse, based on or around “that thing.” These achievements were often the deciding factor of an important raise, or as often as not, the retention of a job.

Burt Rutan wasn’t motivated by any of this. He was motivated to be the one to do it — the first to do it. He was driven by his work, by his almost chaotic approach to doing the job, whatever job, the absolute best it could be done. He sidestepped years of traditional thinking and design with as much effort as one would sidestep a puddle.

Why? Because he knew he could do it better, cheaper and faster. Burt Rutan will be the forgotten genius of our time. While Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and PayPal pretty boy Elon Musk will be remembered for their personalities and money, Burt Rutan will be relegated to a small footnote in some first year aerospace textbook.

I want the high school class of 2016 thru college classes of 2016-2025 to pay close attention, and if you know a student who falls into this time group, pass it along. The people who will graduate during this time span have a heavy but rewarding future in front of them that will have more impact than they can imagine.

There’s a reason why we put Linux on all of our outgoing computers at Reglue. We know, along with most other present day programmers, that Linux will be the base for most of the extremely important work to come. Outside of server slabs and help centers, Linux will be the foundation for these new technologies. And while Linux isn’t sexy and isn’t garnering front page news by being pretty, it will silently and firmly be the base of the really important things in our lives.

Oh, and by the way…Burt Rutan did not design his initial idea of SpaceShipOne on a computer. No, he drafted it by hand and then built a paper model to test his physics. His first wind tunnel was comprised of a brace and brackets built onto the front of his station wagon. His first model of SpaceShipOne was put together by a used plastic mold injection machine he purchased for a couple of thousand dollars.

Right now, my refrigerator uses Linux, as does the thermostat that controls the climate of my home. The washer and dryer components and firmware with the touch control screens are built on Linux (Amana if you want to look it up). The navigation system on my old Ford Explorer is based on Linux. Our home entertainment center has a touch screen control based on Ubuntu.

Who’s going to build and service this stuff? Who is going to build or write the programs for the computers designated to put the first human footprint on Mars? More importantly, what will be the programming and software that brings our heroes home. Any guesses? And to those who tell you Linux is not relevant, don’t even bother to engage them. They don’t yet know what is important for them to know.

I’m going to leave you with one of the most important quotes in my life. This guides me when I come to question myself in knowing what I am doing wrong:

“Testing leads to failure, and failure leads to understanding” – Burt Rutan

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Ken Starks writes and publishes The Blog of Helios, a finalist in our Best FOSS or Linux Blog competition. In addition, he's the person behind the Reglue project, which refurbishes older computers and gives them to disadvantaged school kids in the Austin, Texas area. Follow him on Twitter @Reglue

3 comments to Linux: Boldly Going Where We’ve Not Gone Before

  • David Brown

    “Oh, and did I mention that he built and piloted the first airplane to circle the earth without refueling?”

    Burt designed and built Voyager, but it was his brother Dick (with Jeanna Yeager) who flew it around the world.

  • Spellman

    I think you mean “enterprise rogues”?

  • Man David, I knew that…so much for trying to beat a deadline with any degree of accuracy. Good eye David, thank you.