My colleague Steve Sande touched on this subject of all the Macs at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in an earlier post, and I've been doing some digging to find out more about all the Mac love at our space agency and its field centers. JPL is managed by Caltech, but it falls under NASA's administrative and funding jurisdiction.
I talked to a retired JPL engineer who was using Macs on his desk all the way back to the vintage Macintosh SE. He feels the population of Macs grew when the company started making solid notebooks, like the first MacBook Pro. "People started bringing their own into work, and pretty soon a lot of other people followed. Soon they became almost standard issue at JPL, where they were popular in imaging work, especially creating large mosaics, and when OS X came out there was the added advantage of an OS that was UNIX based."
The engineer also cited the Pentium floating point division error in the 1990s as a factor in the Mac's adoption. PowerPC Mac workstations of that era didn't use the Intel microprocessor and were unaffected by the arithmetic flaw in the Pentium CPU; the flaw was so obscure that it took number theory experiments to expose it, but Intel's lackluster initial response didn't sit well with people who might be risking a multimillion-dollar interplanetary probe on the Nth decimal place of a calculation.
Jerry Blackmon, who used to do desktop support at the Goddard Space Flight Center, also cited a bring-your-own-device attitude as part of the Mac movement. "The scientists and engineers can request whatever platform they desire, and they mostly pick Macs. And it isn't specifically for stuff that runs in X11 either; they use their Macs for everything and emulate when they need to use a Windows app."
NASA even wrote Photoshop plug-ins so images from the Hubble Space Telescope could be opened on both Macs and PCs. The engineer I talked to says Macs now seem to dominate at JPL, and that is clear from the video from the landing of the Mars Curiosity probe last night. I saw a handful of ThinkPads as well, and some iPads scattered around the consoles. Those appeared to be functioning as extra monitors to keep an eye on spacecraft telemetry.
When someone tells you "Macs are toys," you might gently remind them that they seem to be pretty popular for the "real work" of helping to bring a $2.6 billion dollar spacecraft 352 million miles down to a precise target. The MSL mission is tasked to explore the geological origins of Mars and perhaps learn if life ever existed there.
Macs were always pretty good at the Lunar Lander game in the dim past, but this is something far beyond that. If you're also using your Mac in science and engineering, be sure to let us know why in the comments.
[Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS (Malin Space Science Systems)]