The 1980s Science and Technology: Topics in the News

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The 1980s Science and Technology: Topics in the News



The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a civilian government agency, witnessed both great triumph and immense disaster in the 1980s. With the creation of the Space Transportation System (STS), more commonly referred to as the space shuttle, NASA fundamentally shifted its approach to space travel. The space shuttle was to replace traditional expendable launch vehicles as it was to be the first in the line of reusable spaceships. Competition in the race for space had increased in recent years, as both Europe and the Soviet Union had found more-economical methods of exploration. An organization that had long been underfunded by the federal government, NASA was searching for a new symbol to retain its prestige as the premier space exploration organization in the world. With the shuttle in operation, all appeared to be in order.

On April 12, 1981, NASA launched the space shuttle Columbia, which was to be the first in a long line of reusable, cost-efficient spacecraft. The shuttles were multifunctional vehicles designed to provide reliable and consistent travel into space. Their winged shape was similar to that of airplanes, yet the 184-foot-long vessels could carry with them up to seven passengers and several satellites. Its cargo bay was 15 feet wide and 60 feet long and it could haul payloads up to 65,000 pounds. Space shuttles were launched with the aid of two solid booster rockets and an external tank, expendable pieces that separated from the shuttle once it had cleared Earth's atmosphere. NASA touted the craft as being able to perform dozens of missions a year with minimal repair. The shuttle was unable to perform under the vigorous standards that were set for it, however, and as a result, NASA frequently cut corners and sacrificed safety to meet its goals.

Despite problems with the program, the shuttle accomplished a string of historic successes, one of which was the fifth shuttle flight on November 11, 1982, the first operational mission, which launched two communication satellites. Sally K. Ride made history on June 18, 1983, when she became the United States' first woman astronaut in space. Other memorable flights included those in which members of the U.S. Congress rode on board and flights in which commercial satellites were released, retrieved, or repaired in space. NASA intended to have a team of shuttles constantly in action; yet its schedule was severely obstructed by technical, financial, and weather constraints.

After twenty-four successful missions, NASA and the country had come to view space shuttle launches as routine, but the launch of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986, changed those perceptions forever. During its six-day mission, in addition to the usual scientific experiments and satellite release and retrieval that had marked almost all previous shuttle missions, Challenger was to feature live broadcasts to the nation's schoolchildren by high-school social studies teacher Sharon Christa McAuliffe. As part of the Teacher in Space Project, McAuliffe had been chosen from among the nation's teachers to become the first ordinary American to travel aboard a space shuttle. She was to have taught two lessons from space. Joining McAuliffe on the Challenger were pilot Michael J. Smith, flight commander Francis R. Scobee, physicist Ronald E. McNair, electrical engineer Judith A. Resnik, aeronautical engineer Ellison S. Onizuka, and electrical engineer Gregory B. Jarvis.

About 59 seconds into the launch, a plume of fire flamed out of the right-hand booster rocket, jetting down toward the giant fuel tank. By 64 seconds into launch, the fire burned a gaping hole in the casing of the booster. At 72 seconds, it loosened the strut that attached the booster to the external tank. One second later, the loosened booster rocket slammed into the tip of Challenger's right wing. Then, at 74 seconds into the launch, at an altitude of 46,000 feet, the booster rocket crashed into the fuel tank and set off a massive explosion. The shuttle was traveling about twice the speed of sound, almost 1,500 miles per hour.

Challenger exploded 20 miles off the coast of Florida. The force of the explosion sent debris 20 miles above Earth. Burning fragments of the shuttle rained down on recovery operations for the next hour. The seven-person crew was inside a module that detached from the shuttle during the explosion. Evidence collected later indicated that the crew members survived the explosion, only to die when their craft slammed into the Atlantic Ocean at a speed of nearly 2,000 miles per hour after a 9-mile free fall. It is unknown if the entire crew remained conscious throughout the 2-minute fall, but at least two crew members activated emergency air packs.

Of all the accidents in the twenty-five-year history of manned space-flight, the Challenger disaster was by far the worst. The disaster, viewed continuously on television, sent shock waves through the nation. President Ronald Reagan (1911–) established a presidential commission to investigate the accident, and it released its findings in June 1986. The Rogers Commission, chaired by William B. Rogers, the former secretary of state, identified two primary reasons for the shuttle's destruction. The first lay in the faulty design of the craft's rubber O-rings, the seals used to join sections of the two solid-rocket boosters on either side of the shuttle. The rings' function was to keep certain gases from escaping by expanding to fill the gaps. They were sensitive to temperature shifts, and their designer, Morton Thiokol, and NASA were both familiar with the fact that the rings had sometimes failed to expand properly on previous shuttle flights. Their mistake was underestimating the importance of the problem. The second major flaw the commission named was the fact that the Challenger was

launched at a much colder temperature than any other previous launch. In the frigid temperatures that day, the O-rings became less flexible than normal, and they failed to seal the joints completely.

Other discoveries of the commission shed a harsh light on NASA, suggesting that it was an organization riddled with incompetence and a top-heavy management structure that did not allow critical information to reach the right people. The House Science and Technology Committee concurred with the Rogers Commission's finding, which blamed NASA for setting unrealistic goals to be met in such short periods of time that safety was compromised. On August 15, 1986, President Reagan commissioned NASA to begin construction of a new shuttle and to make safety issues a primary concern.

The Chernobyl Disaster

Thousands of miles away from America's shores, the events of April 26, 1986, focused concern on the issue of safety in the nuclear power industry. One of four nuclear reactors at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Kiev in Ukraine exploded with such force that the roof of the building was completely blown off. Eight tons of radioactive material was scattered about the region immediately surrounding the plant. Airborne radioactivity from the blast rained down on northern Europe and Scandinavia (fallout was measured as far away as Scotland), contaminating farm produce.

Engineers at Chernobyl had accidentally initiated an uncontrolled chain reaction in the reactor's core during an unauthorized test in which they unlawfully disabled the reactor's emergency systems. In the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe, more than thirty people lost their lives. More than a decade later, the remains of the Chernobyl reactor were still far too radioactive for anyone to spend more than a few minutes in the area. Scientists estimate that the lives of some twenty thousand people will be shortened as a result of the effects of exposure to radiation from the accident.

The space shuttle program was grounded for more than two years, and NASA worked to rebuild its credibility and the nation's confidence in space travel. The twenty-sixth space shuttle mission did not leave the launchpad until September 29, 1988. To everyone's relief, Discovery lifted off without incident that day. Endeavour, the shuttle built to replace Challenger, first flew on May 7, 1992.


When three atoms of oxygen bond, they form a molecule of ozone (O3). Ozone is both much rarer and much more chemically active than atmospheric oxygen (O2), the common form of oxygen found on Earth. Nevertheless, ozone posed two significant health risks during the 1980s. The first problem was there was too much of it in urban areas near the planet's surface. The second problem was there was not enough of it at high altitudes. Both problems were manmade.

Superfund and Toxic Waste

During the 1980s, the people of the United States lived a life of comfort never before seen in human history for so large and diverse a people. The country's comparative affluence had, however, a major side effect: pollution. While producing an extensive amount of goods for the market, the nation had also been pouring vast quantities of pollutants into the soil, water, and air.

For decades, chemicals and other toxic materials had been disposed of inappropriately across the nation. To correct this and the growing pollution problem, the U.S. Congress established the Superfund in 1980 to clean up toxic waste dumps across America. The Superfund provided three essential things in the fight against toxic waste sites: it put the federal government in charge of identifying public sites; it provided for fines to be levied on chemical manufacturers to assist in funding the cleanup; and it held companies that had contributed to a toxic site accountable, however large or small their contribution.

The new act initially provided more than $1 billion for a Hazardous Substance Response Trust Fund. It soon became clear that even this amount might not be enough to clean up the tons of toxic chemicals buried and abandoned in sites scattered all across the country. During the decade, only twenty-seven sites had been cleaned so thoroughly that they were removed from the Superfund list of hazardous sites. Although by 1989 the federal Superfund had over $8 billion for cleanup of toxic sites, well over a thousand sites remained on the inventory list of those in need of cleanup.

Ozone is a classic example of a chemical that is both helpful and harmful. Most of the ozone in Earth's atmosphere is located within the stratosphere (second atmospheric layer above ground level) between nine and eighteen miles above Earth's surface. Temperatures above the ozone layer, or ozonosphere, are warmer because ozone molecules absorb the Sun's ultraviolet radiation (energy in the form of waves or particles) and transform it into heat energy. Ozone in the atmosphere at this level is critically important because it prevents ultraviolet light and other harmful radiation from reaching the surface of the planet. Ultraviolet radiation is known to affect the growth of certain kinds of plants, to cause eye damage in animals, to disrupt the function of DNA (the genetic material in an organism), and to cause skin cancer in humans.

Exxon Valdez

When the Exxon Valdez ran aground on a charted reef in Prince William Sound in Alaska shortly after midnight on March 24, 1989, it spilled almost eleven million gallons of crude oil into the pristine waters and smeared black goo across an estimated 1,300 miles of coastline. It was the worst oil spill in American history.

Completed in 1986, the Exxon Valdez was the largest ship ever built on the west coast of the United States. It measured 987 feet long, 166 feet wide, and 88 feet deep from its main deck to its flat keel. When fully loaded, it could transport more than 62 million gallons of crude oil.

Piloting the tanker that night was the third mate, who was overly tired and suffering under a heavy workload. The captain, Joseph Hazelwood, was useless in providing a proper navigation watch. Tests subsequently revealed he had been drinking before the tanker ran aground. He was later found not guilty of operating the tanker while under the influence of alcohol. Hazelwood was eventually convicted of only one charge: negligent discharge of oil. That verdict was later overturned on appeal.

The effect of the spill on the environment was immediate and devastating. Scientists estimated that 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, and as many as 22 orcas were killed by the spill. Countless other animals perished as well. Oil drifted as far west as the Aleutian Peninsula. Cleanup efforts began immediately and lasted for over four years. At the peak of the effort, ten thousand workers, one thousand ships, one hundred aircraft, and numerous federal agencies were involved. It is widely believed, however, that wave action from winter storms did more to clean the beaches than all the human effort involved.

The Exxon Corporation, the tanker's owner, spent more than $2 billion on the cleanup effort. It spent another $1 billion to settle civil and criminal charges related to the case. The commercial fishing industry and the tourist industry in the area suffered an untold loss. Ten years after the spill, many fish and wildlife species had not fully recovered. Some scientists believe the amount of damage caused by the spill may never be known and some species may never recover.

Ozone in the troposphere, the atmospheric layer closest to Earth's surface, is harmful, even deadly. The primary sources of ozone in the air humans breathe are gases released from the tailpipes of automobiles and the smokestacks of factories. In the presence of sunlight, these gases can react with atmospheric oxygen to form ozone, which has harmful effects on both plants and animals. Ozone seriously injures the leaves of most plants, reducing their ability to photosynthesize (photosynthesis is a complicated process in which plants utilize light energy to form carbohydrates and release oxygen as a by-product). In humans and other animals, the gas irritates and damages membranes of the respiratory system and eyes. It can also induce asthma.

In the 1980s, in many areas where automotive exhaust and industries were concentrated, the problem of ozone in the air near ground level was often very serious. In 1987, Los Angeles's ozone levels exceeded federal health standards on 141 days. The problem extended nationwide. That same year, ozone levels exceeded federal standards on nineteen days in New York City, on twenty-one days in Houston, and on twenty-three days in Philadelphia.

While ozone was accumulating in the lower atmosphere, scientists found it was being destroyed in the ozonosphere. In 1985, English scientists first reported that the ozone layer above Antarctica appeared to be thinning. In fact, the amount had dropped to such a low level that the term "hole" was used to describe the condition. In succeeding years, the hole reappeared with the onset of each summer season in Antarctica (September through December). The potential threat to human and other life forms on the planet was obvious to many scientists.

Scientists soon presented evidence that a group of chemical compounds known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) might be causing the destruction of the ozone layer. CFCs had been created in 1928 for use as a refrigerant. Over the years, they became widely popular for use as propellants in aerosol sprays, as blowing agents in the manufacture of plastic foams and insulation, as dry-cleaning fluids, and as cleaning agents for electronic components, among other applications. In 1978, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned CFCs in aerosol products in the United States, but problems persisted.

A movement arose to reduce or ban the use of these chemical compounds. In 1987, in a conference sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme, many countries signed the so-called Montreal Protocol,

which set specific time limits for the phasing out of both the production and use of CFCs. Despite these steps, and others taken afterward, scientists were not optimistic. CFCs already released into the atmosphere will continue to destroy the ozone layer for another century. Some scientists predicted that as many as eight hundred thousand people could die from the ill effects caused by the additional ultraviolet radiation that will reach Earth's surface during those years.


By the mid-1980s, computer technology had transformed American life. The watches people wore, the cars they drove, the mail they received, the games they played, the state of their health, and the way they learned were altered by the computer chip. Schools, workplaces, the health industry, government, and the law were all dramatically affected by the computer.

Big businesses had long recognized the importance of the computer. By the 1980s, however, as computer equipment and the programs to make it useful became affordable, even small business offices relied on computers for word processing, accounting, record keeping, and a variety of specialized uses limited only by the imagination of programmers. Computers changed the way telephone systems operated and were managed. Banking moved swiftly from personal service to computerized automatic teller machines (ATMs). Computer-driven robots reshaped manufacturing processes. Computer-assisted teleconferencing began to be recognized as an efficient alternative to expensive business travel. Even show business was affected as computerized synthesizers were developed that could emulate the sound of any musical instrument, and filmmakers used computers to design and execute special effects.

Of equal, if not greater, importance was the personal computer revolution that decade. What the average American commonly refers to as a PC, or personal computer, did not even exist before the 1970s. Room-sized mainframe computers had been the norm, and they were primarily relegated to business and scientific use. With the dawn of the personal computer, all Americans were allowed potential access to computers. Companies such as Apple Computer became household names, and words such as software and downloading became commonplace. It was predicted that by 1990, 60 percent of all the jobs in the United States would require familiarity with computers. Already by 1985, some two million Americans were using personal computers to perform various tasks in the office.

Apple Computer, founded in 1976 by Steven Jobs and Stephen Wozniak, spearheaded the personal computer revolution, developing its innovative vision of how computers could relate to the average person. In 1983, Apple introduced the Lisa, the first computer to introduce the concept of windows, menus, icons, and a mouse to the mainstream. The Lisa computer was phased out by 1985 and surpassed by the Macintosh in 1984. The Macintosh was faster, smaller, and less costly than the Lisa. Packaged as a user-friendly machine that was economical enough to be in every home, the Macintosh did not require its user to have programming knowledge in order to operate it, and it became popular.

In 1986, Apple introduced the Mac Plus computer, and the Laserwriter printer. The introduction of these two, along with Adobe PageMaker, an easy-to-use graphics page-layout program, helped give rise to a new medium known as desktop publishing. Creating this new niche made Macintosh the premier, efficient publishing computer. Apple expanded its hold on the graphics market in 1987 with the introduction of the Mac II computer. Its color graphic capability encouraged the creation of color printers capable of reproducing the color images on the computer screen.

Machine of the Year

At the beginning of every year, Time magazine publishes a Man of the Year issue in which it bestows that title on a single person (man or woman) who made a significant mark, for better or worse, on the world in the preceding year. In January 1983, the editors of the magazine named the personal computer its 1982 Machine of the Year, solidifying the arrival of the PC into mainstream American society. Some critics scoffed at the fact the magazine had bestowed such an important title on a machine, but the editors of Time defended their position. By adapting the honor for a machine, Time acknowledged the immense contribution the PC had made upon society. Computers, once available only to trained programmers, had become increasingly commonplace in homes across the country. They completely changed the way average Americans received and processed information at work and at home, and they would continue to do so for years to come.

Despite Apple's successes, International Business Machines (IBM) remained the largest computer firm in the world. In August 1981, IBM had introduced its first personal computer. Simply called the IBM PC, it became the definition for the personal computer. IBM was the largest of the three giant computer firms in the world, and the other two, Hewlett-Packard and Xerox, had previously attempted to make efforts into the new PC market but failed. IBM initially was not convinced that the American public was interested in computers, particularly for home usage, but after viewing the early successes of Apple, they were determined to enter the race. To create software for the PC, IBM turned in 1981 to a young company called Microsoft to formulate the computer operating system which became known as MS-DOS (Microsoft Disk Operating System).

IBM PCs were immensely powerful, fast machines for their time, and their entrance into the market legitimized the personal computer and created a new industry. By the mid-1980s, IBM PCs had inspired other companies to produce "IBM clones" that copied IBM's hardware and software at a lower cost to consumers. Constantly setting the standard, IBM established agreements with software companies such as Lotus to develop sophisticated programming. Even with several marketing setbacks throughout the decade, IBM managed to remain on top of the growing computer world. By 1989, IBM was producing personal computers that dwarfed earlier models in speed, capability, and technology.

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As the personal computer world continued to grow, it spawned other industries. One of the largest new markets to develop was that of the software industry, and one of the largest companies in that industry was Microsoft, founded in 1975 by Bill Gates and Paul Allen in Redmond, Washington. Microsoft's MS-DOS, initially licensed only to IBM, became the industry-standard operating software for all PCs by the end of the decade. The ability to corner the fast-growing software market solidified Microsoft's leadership position in the 1980s. Late in the decade, Microsoft also began work on the Windows software program for PCs and introduced programs for Apple Computer.


Located seventy miles from Portland, Oregon, in a sparsely populated region of southwestern Washington state in the Cascade mountain range, Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980 in one of the largest volcanic explosions in North American history. The blast was equivalent in power to the largest hydrogen bomb ever exploded. The volcano's last eruption had been recorded by the American explorer and army officer John C. Frémont (1813–1890) in 1857.

After having lain dormant since the mid-nineteenth century, Mount St. Helens came alive in March 1980. In the two months before the eruption, Mount St. Helens experienced more than ten thousand small earthquakes and hundreds of small eruptions involving blasts of steam. Also during that time, the north slope of the volcano bulged outward more than 260 feet. On March 27, there was an explosion that created a 200-foot hole in the mountainside. The next day a plume of steam, ash, and gas erupted from the volcano and rose 4 miles into the atmosphere.

Sensing an impending eruption, scientists advised as many as 250,000 residents in nearby counties, including several hundred loggers, forest rangers, and residents in the immediate vicinity of Mount St. Helens, to leave the area. Roadblocks were set up around the perimeter of the volcano,

although a number of people such as backpackers and loggers continued to slip through. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) assigned a scientific team of twenty-four volcano-watchers to monitor the volcano.

The quiet dawn of May 18, 1980, was shattered when an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale rumbled beneath the volcano at 8:27 a.m., weakening its crater rim. Four minutes later, the north face of the volcano collapsed and slid downward in the largest landslide in recorded history. As the cone crumbled, gas was released and the magma was exposed. At 8:32 a.m., the volcano exploded in a blast that was heard as far away as Vancouver, Canada, some 200 miles to the north. Instead of moving straight upward, the hot gas, steam, ash, and rock fragments the volcano spewed forth traveled sideways to the north where the crater rim had been destroyed. The flow of hot ash and gas raced across the ground at speeds approaching 80 miles per hour. At a temperature of at least 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit, it burned everything it touched for an area of 6 square miles. The flying debris, gas, and heat killed millions of wildlife including deer, elk, coyotes, bobcats, black beers, mountain lions, birds, and other animals. The windstorm produced by the eruption was powerful enough to flatten trees and to pick up and toss around logging trucks and bulldozers several miles from the volcano.

The heat from the eruption melted snow and ice on the volcano. This water combined with ash and chunks of ice to form mudflows that filled riverbeds and lakes, and buried houses, roads, and bridges. Millions of trout and salmon died in the mud-choked rivers. The flow of the Columbia River, a main thoroughfare to the Pacific Ocean, was blocked by mud.

The eruption sent a cloud containing millions of tons of dust and ash fifteen miles into the air. As the cloud spread across 22,000 miles of western U.S. skies, the Sun was blocked out. Residents of Spokane, Washington, 250 miles from Mount St. Helens, experienced complete darkness throughout the day of the eruption. Crops in parts of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho were blanketed by ash that fell to the ground in the days after the eruption. The cloud spread across the country in three days and circled the planet in fifteen days.

Sixty-two people lost their lives in the eruption of Mount St. Helens. Most of the victims choked to death on volcanic ash. People located eighteen miles north of the volcano were killed by heat, ash, showering rocks, and lethal gases in the eruption. Prior to the blast, scientists had determined that 16 miles from the volcano would be a safe distance. They never imagined the volcano would spew its stream sideways.

Before May 18, Mount St. Helens had stood at 9,677 feet. The fifth-tallest peak in Washington, it was also one of the most picturesque, its nearly perfect cone shape capped by snow and ice. The eruption removed the uppermost 1,314 feet of the mountain, dropping it to the fifteenth-tallest peak in the state. The crater and north side of the mountain, including the crater rim, were destroyed, leaving the crater clearly visible after the eruption.

American Nobel Prize Winners in Chemistry or Physics

1980Paul Berg
Walter Gilbert
James Watson Cronin
Val Logsdon Fitch
1981Roald HoffmannChemistry
Nicolaas Bloembergen
Arthur Leonard Schawlow
1982Kenneth G. WilsonPhysics
1983Henry TaubeChemistry
Subramanyan Chandrasekhar
William Alfred Fowler
1984Robert Bruce MerrifieldChemistry
1985Herbert A. Hauptman
Jerome Karle
1986Dudley R. Herschbach
Yuan T. Lee
1987Donald J. Cram
Charles J. Pederson
1988Leon M. Lederman
Melvin Schwartz
Jack Steinberger
1989Sidney Altman
Thomas R. Cech
Norman F. Ramsey
Hans G. Dehmelt

Despite the incredible destruction to the surrounding landscape, plants began to reappear in the area just a few months after the eruption, and, slowly, wildlife returned to the region. Volcanic activity, however, continued. A second eruption occurred on May 25, a week after the initial blast. A dome of molten rock had formed by October 1980, and another, less spectacular, eruption took place on April 11, 1981. Five years later, in May and June 1985, a series of minor earthquakes accompanied by mild volcanic activity worried residents, but no major volcanic activity followed. Although they cannot accurately predict when, scientists believe the volcano may erupt again early in the twenty-first century.

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The 1980s Science and Technology: Topics in the News