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August 10, 2023 · 18 min read

Season 4, Ep. 24 – TWiTH: The first e-mail from space, with

Today, we take for granted that an email can be sent with the quick flick of the wrist from a computer you keep in your pocket. But when the first email was sent from space in 1991, it marked an occasion that would change communication forever. On This Week in Tech History, Grey and Abbey chat about the crew, their odes to pop culture, and how we’ll be communicating from space in the near future.


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Abbey (00:05):

Whew. For a second. I was like, I can’t rewrite the whole site this week. It’s been a while since I like, built out a product.

Grey (00:15):

And it looks like the, you know, the CMS, like, all the components look really cool. Like, easy, like, intuitive.

Abbey (00:21):

Yeah. She did a really great job. I’m really stoked about it. (Grey: Nice.) It’s a little plug right here at the top of the show. We hired someone off of our platform to do a future release for our marketing site, and it’s wonderful.

Grey (00:36):

She crushed it.

Abbey (00:37):

Yeah. Well, welcome. I feel like you’re also having a busy day.

Grey (00:43):

I am. I mean, you know, there are always busy days, but today’s been a particularly good busy day.

Abbey (00:51):

Oh, I just noticed you’re wearing a Hi-Wire hat, too.

Grey (00:54):

I know, and you know what? An interesting story. Everyone that I’ve encountered that has noticed that has called out that I’m wearing a Hi-Wire hat, they’re always cool people. Literally, always. (Abbey: Really? Okay.) Yeah. I actually got special treatment at the Ryman Auditorium, the last show I was at, because I had this hat. (Abbey: Nice.) Like, the dude was like, giving me like, cut-in-line status. (Abbey:L Nice.) I was like, Hi-Wire hat, man. This is the key to life.

Abbey (01:24):

Apparently. I feel like that happens occasionally when like, I mean obviously, we have a lot of beer stuff from Colorado, so when people out here in Asheville see that, and they’ve been there, they’re like, “Oh, yeah.” (Grey: Yeah.) [I] spend many of my dollars at these places.

Grey (01:44):

Yeah. You’ve gone from beer hub to beer hub.

Abbey (01:46):

Yeah, and if we hadn’t moved to Asheville, we were gonna move to Portland.

Grey (01:52):

<Laugh> I’m seeing a through line here.

Abbey (01:54):

Yeah. Yep. There is, and we actually, when we went on our trip out east, we checked out Portland, Maine, which is a big beer city out east. (Grey: Yep.) Really cool. I wish we’d spent a little bit more time there.

Grey (02:08):

I just love the whole, you know, beer pub and the brew pub thing, and they’re such good experiences. I don’t know if you’ve been to the Sierra one in Asheville, but that’s like (Abbey: Oh, yeah.) super like, highly recommended. Like, worth a trip to Asheville. Worth a trip to Sierra Nevada to go do that. It’s awesome.

Abbey (02:27):

Like, it’s like an adult playground.

Grey (02:30):

Why not?

Abbey (02:31):

It’s crazy. Yeah, it’s usually like, if, especially if we pick somebody up from the airport like, anywhere around high traffic time, go hang out at Sierra Nevada for an hour or two. (Grey: Yeah.) Yeah. There are another couple big, big companies that have opened campuses out here that are cool, like the, I was gonna say Fat Tire, and that’s not it, that’s the beer…wow. I drink there all the time. New Belgium <laugh>.

Grey (03:00):

Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Abbey (03:04):

Yeah. We like going there, ’cause it feels like a little bit like a little flavor of home.

Grey (03:09):

Yeah, I love New Belgium, and they’re, who else is out there that people might know of?

Abbey (03:20):

Oskar Blues has a campus down in…

Grey (03:22):

Oskar Blues, that’s right. Yeah, yeah.

Abbey (03:24):

Yeah. It’s a pretty cool spot too. (Grey: Is it?) It’s all open, so I’ve never been there in the winter. That whole area of the state’s really beautiful.

Grey (03:32):

Yeah, I agree.

Abbey (03:34):

Now that we’ve kvetched about all of the great craft beer places around us, that is not what Grey and I are here to talk about today <laugh>. Grey is joining me today to talk about the first email sent from space. I do feel like this is pretty fitting, because the last one we did was the first, Tyler and I talked about the first transatlantic telegraph cable. So like, to go from that to the first email from space, kinda cool.

Grey (04:05):

Yeah, and that was like what, 1850? Like, something ridiculously long ago? Yeah.

Abbey (04:11):

(RETRO SYNTHESIZER MUSIC PLAYS) Eighteen fifty-eight, I believe? So today, we’re going forward from the telegraph, back from the future. We’re going to August 9th, 1991, onboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Aboard the Atlantis were two astronauts, named James Adamson and Shannon Lucid, who decided to embark on an extraordinary mission of their own. Armed with a Mac Portable, which is a really cool, I don’t know if you saw any pictures of it. It’s about this big, and it has just like, a little flip-up screen. Like, the very first prototype of like, a MacBook, I guess.

Grey (04:53):

<Laugh>. Like something from Lost in Space.

Abbey (04:56):

Yes <laugh>

James Adamson, via 1991 video clip from the Space Shuttle (04:57):

(VIDEO CLIP AUDIO PLAYS)…a phenomenon. We’ve noticed since we’ve got on orbit here, the automatic disc ejection system that the Mac has, and that you can see, when we get rid of these discs, you’re gonna have to pay attention to where they go.

Shannon Lucid, via 1991 video clip from the Space Shuttle (05:10):

That’s pretty slick. (VIDEO CLIP AUDIO ENDS)

Abbey (05:12):

So they were the first ones to try to send an email from space in a message that combined humor, adventure, and a nod to the always classic Terminator. They wrote, “Hello, Earth! Greetings from the STS-43 crew. This is the first Apple Link from space. Having a great time. Wish you were here. Send cryo and RCS. Hasta la vista, baby! We’ll be back.” Which, I hope so. A more daunting message would really be worrisome. That traveled through the vast expansive space and reached the Johnson Space Center in Houston on that day. To achieve this, they had to connect with Apple’s proprietary network. They used a specially configured Apple Link software. This allowed their trusty Macintosh Portable to interface with NASA’s communication system, which is pretty cool. I think that, at this point, the Apple Link was only really set up for dealers and employees to use.

Abbey (06:15):

So they hooked it up, this was like, kind of one of the first foray into hooking it up to an external communication system, and it was NASA’s. The computer that they used didn’t even require like, very many modifications. Still worked flawlessly in the weightless environment of space, which I think they have a lot of problems with, in general. And you know, it’s kind of like, this kind of marked like, I was just saying, we just talked about last week, the first time you could communicate with somebody on another continent, and here it was like, reaching the frontier of being able to send an email through space. And that was, I mean, I guess maybe 140 years. That’s pretty astronomical growth for that long. (RETRO SYNTHESIZER MUSIC FADES OUT)

Grey (07:04):

Right. On like, a yeah, on the scale of (Abbey: Yeah.) civilization, right? Like, it’s no time. It’s a blip.

Abbey (07:13):

Yeah. I think my favorite part was the Terminator quote, which also kind of circles back, because the last time you were around here, we were talking about another pop culture reference, Pac-Man. (Grey: Yeah.) I think it’s interesting that there are generally like, a lot of ties between pop culture and things that are like, significant in the scheme of technology. I think one of the other things we talked about on the podcast in another episode was like, the Code Red worm, where it was named after Mountain Dew Code Red.

Grey (07:46):

It’s the same thing as putting an Easter egg in a, you know, in software for me. You know? (Abbey: Yeah.) There the idea that, you know, massive innovation is happening, groundbreaking things are happening that you, no one ever thought possible, that somehow, some team, somewhere figured out how to do a thing. It’s alienating, right? Like, you don’t feel connected with that, and then you drop a “Hasta la vista, baby,” in there and it’s like, oh. (Abbey: Yeah.) Like, these people watch the same movies I do. It brings it like, immediately back to like, this is kind of a “we” thing. Like, I could live next door to the person did that.

Abbey (08:26):

That’s a really good point.

Grey (08:27):

You know, the humanization of that, where it takes something super foreign and then makes it like, instantly tangible, right, and instantly relatable, is a big deal.

Abbey (08:40):

Especially on the like, on the marketing team, we’ve been talking a lot lately about humanization, and it’s like, how do you find those common threads of connection that still, you know, make you interested in something that might otherwise be like, sort of esoteric to you? You know? And that’s like, like you’re saying, like, a perfect example, you take something that’s…how do you explain the complexities of sending an email from space at a point in time, which when email wasn’t even really like, a thing. We weren’t emailing people in the early ‘90s.

Grey (09:14):

No <laugh>. (Abbey: No.) No. There’s the humanization, and then, to your point about email and technology in general, I mean, we weren’t really even in the, you had to connect, you know, NASA obviously has some, you know, security and all kinds of other, you know, moving parts here, but just in terms of like, the raw functioning of the technology. I mean, you’re dealing with closed systems and proprietary protocols, and there was no way for an out-of-the-box system just to magically connect to NASA. No one was using, there was no out-of-the-box <laugh>, right? (Abbey: Right.) Like, they were all…

Abbey (09:55):

They’re like, “There is no box for this.”

Grey (09:57):

Yeah. We built our own box, you know? (Abbey: Yeah.) And your box is not, you know, so I think that the idea that you, that this was all, this is also a story about, you know, interoperability. It’s about protocol. It’s about integration. Like, there’s some sort of macro kind of interesting things here that…yes, it’s about sending an email, but is it? I don’t think it really is. It’s about messaging, it’s about, you know, networks. It’s about the, you know, what’s the logical extreme of that that we’re, you see, I mean, this was a long time ago, so we’ve seen the logical extension of what that looks like today.

Abbey (10:37):

It was maybe 20, 25 years before that where you could even, where there was even interoperability among like, a system created by a single brand. So like, you know, that was the first time like, IBM made their 360 system, and everything could, you know, could be updated and backdated and stuff like that. So to go from that in the span of, you know, like, 20 ish years to like, you can now connect an Apple computer to a NASA communication system and email somebody in space.

Grey (11:15):

Yeah, yeah. It’s another, I mean, not to be cheesy about it, but it’s like, it’s actually another frontier. We’re talking about space, you know (Abbey: Yeah.) like, as a thing. But the idea that communication can exist between systems and now between, you know like, space and terrestrial systems, is also like, that’s a new canvas. That’s a new frontier, in itself, you know, that also has its own, you know, development arc from a technology perspective. So like, it’s symbolic like, right, that it was, that was an event that also happened (Abbey: Yeah.) In the midst of, you know, Atlantis and everything that they were doing in space. It’s like, it’s kind of cool.

Abbey (12:02):

Yeah. I think everyone, especially when you’re a kid, everyone dreams like, “Oh, wouldn’t it be cool to go to space and live on Mars?” And how far off that seemed to them 30 years ago, (Grey: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) when things like this were starting to happen, and now it’s like, we’re talking about building living quarters on farm planets, and you’d still be able to like…the idea that that is possible started with the seed of something like, can you even send an email? Can you get information from here to there that allows you to be like, thriving and engaged from the other side of the solar system?

Grey (12:51):

Yeah, and I think, you know, the interesting flip there, for me is, you know, considering something as being possible or impossible versus sort of inevitable, it’s just a matter of when. (Abbey: Yeah.) And so, or right? The idea is, is it possible to somehow colonize Mars? It’s just like, when are we gonna do it and what are the enabling tools that are gonna allow us to get there? You know? So it’s not, it’s not even a matter of possibility anymore. We don’t really think in those terms, I don’t think about “impossible”. [That] doesn’t really seem like a thing that we, that feels like a constraint to us, you know?

Abbey (13:29):

The constraint almost feels like “What are the tools that are available right this minute to make that happen, and then how do we develop the tools that make this inevitability reality?”

Grey (13:41):

Yeah, a hundred percent, and part of the macro here is, you know, what was represented in the Apple Link, you know, to NASA proprietary messaging, whatever they had going on there, is that it created the very first link between what would ultimately become infrastructure, you know? And so like, there was no infrastructure, so it was very much like, the Wild West there. Without infrastructure, you have to have sort of a frontier mentality, and then with infrastructure, it’s more of a development mentality, you know, so you’re, ’cause you’re developing on known systems and infrastructure. And so the inevitability, I think when we think about like, you know, more trips to the moon, or to Mars, or anything that you can sort of imagine right there, it’s really, it’s gonna be predicated on the infrastructure that exists in order to do that. (Abbey: Yeah.)

Grey (14:38):

So, right? And so the idea that we’re, that we have, you know, basically a mesh satellite network that can connect to what, you know, the known internet, at this point, from space, doesn’t seem that even complex or even advanced to us at this point. But that’s infrastructure that we continue to build on, and so the ideas are enabled by this sort of core infrastructure, and as that expands, [the] only constraint really is the physical distance, but the patterns are gonna be the same, right? It’s gonna be like, some infrastructure is gonna attach to some other infrastructure that’s gonna enable all kinds of development to happen. It’s no longer sort of, the idea of it being impossible is just a matter of sort of “What stage of development are we in?”

Abbey (15:31):

Especially when you can stand out and look up at the night sky and see, you know, rows of satellites being lifted off, and that just represents, you know like, another, well, it represents a lot of things, but like, in this context, it’s “Look at how much more global communication we’re enabling. Look at how much more…” You know like, is it limited to global communication? What else can those satellites be used for up there, once they’ve already been launched? And I think another side of that is like, there gets to be some like, muddy waters between like, who owns that technology, and how does that…is it always for the betterment of things, of furthering scientific research? Is it for the betterment of people in general, or is it only benefiting the select few?

Grey (16:30):

Yeah, I think that’s a great question. And I mean, optimistically, you know, you would think that it would be a unifying thing, but you know, realistically, there’s gonna have to be some governance there, and we should assume that there, it’s gonna be, there are gonna be territorial disputes, you know, and so how do we deal with that as we expand? Which, you know, to a large degree, I think kind of brings us back to the first point, which is like, what’s the role in humanization? What’s the role in, you know, scientists being as front-and-center, (Abbey: Yeah.) and center as the science or the, you know, the innovators as much as the innovation and making it feel like a “we” thing and not like, an “us” and “they” kind of thing. There’s a lot of “we” and “they” going on, (Abbey: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) you know? (Abbey: Yeah.) <Unintelligible>.

Abbey (17:28):

It feels so quickly out of control when you’re kind of just like, somebody who’s sitting by the sidelines, watching all of this innovation happen, and it’s, you know like, I feel like that constant kind of tug with a lot of AI stuff, where it’s like, “Well, how much am I contributing to this tool by using it, and at what point do the makers of it have to assume responsibility for what they created?” That’s gonna keep happening, and how, you know, what responsibility do we have on a universal, literal universal scale when we have a hard time regulating ourselves with like, computer chatbots <laugh>.

Grey (18:17):

<Laugh>. Right. And is the earth flat <laugh>?

Abbey (18:23):

Is it? Is it?

Grey (18:25):

Right? I mean, you know, the fact that ridiculous things are still open questions, you know, are, it kind of,  (Abbey: Yes.) it speaks to what you’re saying, right? Which is like, it’s cool to think about super responsible, super thoughtful people moving us forward, but we still struggle with very, very basic challenges that, you know, that if we’re not beyond that, how do we reconcile that growing disparity between [the] colonization of Mars and, you know, a simple thing like, you know…

Abbey (18:58):

Getting reliable internet in Asheville, North Carolina.

Grey (19:02):

Well, right. Or like, right. Yeah. I mean, practical problems like that, you know? Not, you know, not everyone has electricity, you know? (Abbey: Yeah.) I think that’s a real interesting sort of dimension to innovation. So, I mean, when you think about space that’s like, just at the edge of it, you know, and it sort of highlights how…the disparity.

Abbey (19:25):

Yeah. There are people who still don’t have clean drinking water, and (Grey: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) We’re worried about how we’re gonna colonize Mars.

Grey (19:36):

Yeah. You know, I think one lens on it, though, that I’ve found helpful, is that, you know, there’s cross pollen…pollen…pollination? Pollination? Cross pollination? (Abbey: Yes.) Yeah.

Abbey (19:52):

That’s the one.

Grey (19:53):

I think that’s right <laugh>. (Abbey: <Laugh>.) That’s what I’m trying to say. So, you know, a lot of stuff that goes into a space program, because of all the constraints, like, for some, a level of innovation in terms of like, size, or weight, or like, even code like, you know, how verbose code is, because they have to send telemetry across (Abbey: Yeah.) thousands of miles. There are all these constraints that have innovation that then cross pollinate back into like, you know, normal everyday things, you know? So maybe a way to look at it is continued investment in things that seem like, super futuristic, like space exploration, actually do have…you know, you think about something like Starlink, you know? Maybe we can solve real-world, right-now problems with, you know, advancements that are, they have their roots in things like space exploration or, you know, satellite communication, those sorts of things. (Abbey: Yeah.) That infrastructure…enough. You know, “glass half full” kind of way to look at it.

Abbey (21:01):

Yeah. Starlink is a super interesting example. You know, I think that it’s, like, in a lot of ways. One, the capacity they’ve had to launch systems for communication. I think something we’ve recently seen is the use of like, turning them on and off to enable different people to have and not have access to that internet, which has been happening a lot in the Ukraine war, and it’s like, what kind of responsibility does a private company have, at that point, too, to say like, “We’re gonna be hands off. Everyone has access to this as a utility. How do we get from that, where you’re saying like, this was built for something that was an out there idea, and how can we bring that back to say like, “This is something that now, Starlink has so many satellites that they’ve enabled internet to be a basic utility anywhere in the world.” Yeah, that’s a really cool thought process and like, cool way to look at those large advancements and how they still can benefit.

Grey (22:17):

Yeah, (Abbey: Yeah.) and I think from a governance and management standpoint, I mean, you can draw some cues from the way that, you know, free open source community works, you know? (Abbey: Yeah.) Like, a lot of open source software started as a similar idea. It’s like, this is kind of a, it’s a weird thing. It’s an experiment. It can solve a niche problem, and we’re gonna develop a community around it, and it’s basic, it’s community supported, it’s community governed, like, all of those sorts of things. (Abbey: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) because, you know, because there’s utility for that library or whatever it may be, you know? Thousands of people, you know, rely on it, and so there’s an investment in order to have the utility. There’s some really important sort of bigger, macro lessons in that, you know, and sort of shared responsibility, and upkeep, and that sort of thing. So probably some lessons learned from that that we could apply to even bigger ideas, you know, more global ideas.

Abbey (23:15):

Would you travel to space if given the option?

Grey (23:19):

Would I do a, you know, a one-way mission to save humankind, like, you know, Hollywood style? Like, yeah, I mean, I’d probably do my duty there, but like, would I just kind of, would I take a Virgin Galactic thing that just goes (Abbey: For funsies.) like, super high, and like, real fast, and for a quick lap around the globe? I don’t, you know, I don’t know. I think that there are all kinds of like, why would I do this <laugh> kind of thing?

Abbey (23:51):

That’s a lot of money. If it was free, maybe.

Grey (23:54):

Yeah. I mean, right. There’s that, as well. Like, I just don’t, it’s almost like skydiving. Like, I’m not like, opposed to skydiving, but I also like, don’t have a, I’m not like, dying to do it either. I think I kind of feel the same way about it. It’s like, it would be like super cool, but… (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN)

Abbey (24:12):

Your life isn’t gonna be incomplete without it.

Grey (24:14):

No <laugh>. Send me the pictures.

Abbey (24:17):

<Laugh>. Yes, send me the pictures. I’ll be drinking somewhere in a brewery (Grey: <Laugh>.) in a bright room.

Grey (24:25):

Yeah, exactly.

Abbey (24:27):

Yeah. “Look what my friend’s doing!” (Grey: <Laugh>.) “Cheers!”

Grey (24:31):

<Laugh>. Well, I’ll be back.

Abbey (24:34):

<Laugh>. Yes. Perfect closer.

Faith, via previous recording (24:40):

Thanks for listening to the Frontier Podcast, powered by We drop two episodes per week, so if you like this episode, be sure to subscribe on your platform of choice, and come hang out with us again next week, and bring all your internet friends. If you have questions or recommendations, just shoot us a Twitter DM @theFrontierPod, and we’ll see you next week.