Endeavour flyover might inspire next Steve Jobs

Looking at the thousands who turned out at Moffett Field on Friday to watch the farewell flyover of space shuttle Endeavour, I couldn’t help wondering whether I was staring at the next Steve Jobs.

Was it the little girl in the pink crocs? The boy, not more than seven, with the straight up spiking hair and the toy space shuttle that he was putting through some incredible paces?

Starting before dawn, the place was an impromptu Silicon Valley street party called to celebrate the triumph of technology over the improbable. And I couldn’t help thinking that somewhere in that throng there was somebody or somebodies who were going to do great things.

Donald James, NASA Ames’ acting director of new ventures and communications put the idea in my head a few days before Friday’s big event. We were talking about the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spot the shuttle. He was telling me about the time he was in Washington D.C. years ago, when a shuttle strapped on top of a 747 made a flyover of the capital.

“It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen,” James said. “People had just stopped their cars on the Beltway and were just pouring out of buildings.”

It was like a horror movie, but the fair citizens were rushing out not out of fear, but out of joyous curiosity inspired by a technological marvel.

And maybe that’s what you’d expect. But why, I asked James? Why does the sight of a shuttle excite people so?

“My view on that,” he said, “is it touches that part of people that is hopeful and optimistic about what’s possible technologically. I think people just want to feel a part of something that is positive and future oriented.”

And when they are a part of something like that, they become inspired.

“If a million people go out and look at this thing, and I hope it’s 10 million,” James said before the Endeavour made its passes over the state Capitol, the Golden Gate Bridge and NASA Ames at Moffett, “if one percent of those young people that see this thing, and they say, ‘Wow, I want to be part of something like that.’ And it motivates them to do whatever they need to do in school; I’d say it’s well worth it.”

But does that really happen? Can the site of a passing of piggybacking shuttle overhead, really change a kid’s life?

“We never know who this is going to impact or excite, but you’ll find out later,” James said. “I read somewhere that Steve Jobs got his interest in computers because he went on a tour of NASA Ames.”

No doubt he read it in Walter Isaacson’s biography “Steve Jobs.”

“The first computer I ever saw,” Isaacson quotes Jobs as saying, “was when my dad brought me to the Ames center. I fell totally in love with it.”

So we never know. But let’s keep an eye out.

Mike Cassidy Mike Cassidy (173 Posts)

I write about the culture of Silicon Valley for the San Jose Mercury News.