The Control Room Solution

Oh, the geekboy squeeing!
Oh, the geekboy squeeing!

One of the best parts of my recent trip to L.A. was the fact that the friend of a friend happens to work at SpaceX. For those of you luddites, that’s the commercial space organization that is working on various low-earth orbit missions like resupplying the International Space Station.

The friend asked if I wanted a tour. Personally, I didn’t care much for it, but deep inside me is a young ten-year old boy who just checked out Robert Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit-Will Travel, and he was jumping up and down like a wombat on Ayer’s Rock in midsummer.

Ok, who am I kidding. Do you see that guy there on the left? He was thrilled. From the moment we walked in and the elegant receptionist took our names with cold, polite efficiency, I was having a wonderful time.

Rocket, Man!

Just to be clear: this isn’t a research facility. This isn’t a control center. This isn’t where they make the rockets, or test them once they come back.

It’s all of those! And more!

Ok, well, the “more” was basically a coffee bar and a truly space-age pop machine, but yeah, I got to come up close and personal to the engines, the modules, the “guts” – I mean, I got to see people polishing the inside of solid rocket boosters, wiring (by hand) the control mechanisms. I got to see the blueprints, I got to stand inches from Merlin (the name of their rocket engine) and marvel about how much simpler, and yet also similar, it was to the V-2 rocket I saw in the British War Museum last year. Physics doesn’t change, I guess, because both of those were similar to the sketches of rocket ships that I used to doodle when I was that aforementioned ten-year old boy.

The whole thing was just as cool as I imagined…except for one thing.

The Duh Moment

Do me a favor. Imagine your favorite movie – scifi, war thriller, whatever – that has a “control center” in it. I’m betting it probably looks something like this:


Right? That’s what we’ve all grown to expect. When my friend showed us the control rooms (they have two, so that in case one goes down they can instantly switch to the other, completely independent one) it had, like in the image, lots of tables with ergonomic chairs and three wide-screen monitors at each station. There was even a few geeks sitting at some of them, pondering tables and 3-d mockups and such (squee!).

But, when I looked up, I saw…a large blank white wall.

This made no sense to me, at first. Where are the giant jumbotron screens? Where’s the wall of TV’s through which Ozymandias can behold his kingdom and despair? Having worked with TV’s professionally a good portion of my life, I wanted to see what kind of super-duper plasma screen they stretched up in the state-of-the-art command center of the next step of humanity’s journey to the stars.

A blank wall.

Then my gaze traveled across the ceiling to where, almost directly above me, there were three or four large video projectors suspended. They were giants – obviously some of the fancy 1080p (or higher) resolution models.

That’s when I realized that all the movies, all the books, all the tv shows had it wrong. Reality was much simpler, much more elegant – why control a surface when you can instead control what is projected onto the surface? When they need multiple screens on the wall, it’s no more complicated than when you open another window on your desktop. With multiple projectors and enough processor power you can make each “screen” as big or small as you’d like, and…and…my mind boggled at the possibilities, even while a perverse side of me kind of wanted to see them play “pong” on it.

We’ve had it all wrong, all these years. Nobody that I can think of, no author, production designer, or graphic artist has ever designed a control room run with projectors on a blank wall. Even I, who specialized in projection design at the beginning of my theatre career, never thought of it.

That’s How It Works

The problem just kept piling up until, in the eighteen-nineties, it seemed virtually insurmountable. One commentator predicted that by 1930 horse manure would reach the level of Manhattan’s third-story windows.
the New Yorker

That’s from the “Horseshit Parable”, which tells about how leading scientists tried to deal with the problem of all the droppings (about twenty-four tons a month) that was needing to be dealt with by the citizens of the city. A lot of people (myself included) tend to use it to talk about climate change and population growth, but I think it – and the SpaceX control room – have a lesson on a more visceral, personal level.

If you had told me, five years ago, that the high point of my day would be hearing my three-year-old grandson say “Yeah!” when he learned that I was going to watch him tonight, I would have been skeptical. More to the point, if you’d asked me to imagine what could snap me out of a feeling of depression, I would have come up with all sorts of scientificky ideas like exercise to improve serotonin or watching a comedian or sex or something like that.

Nowhere would I have thought of “Call Harvey, and listen to him grin.

A lot of people – myself included – spend a lot of time obsessing about what love should look like. Not as much as Amy Webb, author of Data: A Love Story, perhaps, but a lot of time. She actually created an entire matrix of attributes complete with a scoring system to first improve her dating life and then, later on, find her husband. It makes for a great TEDx talk, and the book is popular. I don’t think all of us will be able to quite as accurately “game the system” as she did.

Nor do I think we should really try. The truth is, the love we find in our lives is most likely going to look very different from the love we imagine at whatever point we are at – and that’s a good thing. Maybe, like the SpaceX control room, the reality will end up being both simpler and more robust than we could have imagined.

The trick, I think, is to not be so focused on the love we expect that we fail to appreciate the love that is.

Good luck.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *