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Americans took electronic gadgetry to their hearts in a big way during the 1980s. "User-friendly" high-tech wizardry came home to roost at the same time business was inundated by a flood of silicon chips.

But in some instances, humankind, in its march to a high-tech world, tragically outwitted itself.It only took 73 seconds on January 28, 1986, for it to become frighteningly evident that science and technology are limited by frailties of human nature.

Early in the decade, the Shuttle Columbia became the first re-flyable spaceship to be launched into space. Five years later, the country - in the midst of a space-induced high - was paralyzed by the deaths of seven, including teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe, who parished when the Shuttle Challenger exploded into a giant fireball in full public view on TV sets across the nation.

The disaster grounded U.S. satellite placement for nearly three years while high courts investigated allegations that NASA and its Utah contractor, Morton Thiokol, had abandoned "good judgment and common sense.

Former University of Utah President James Fletcher worked to restore confidence in the space program as he again assumed the helm of the agency.

Then in 1988, after a 32-month hiatus, Discovery's fiery launch lifted U.S. spirits and put astronauts back into space. But officials began to ask can the U.S. afford expensive shuttle missions for tasks that rockets can do more cheaply.

Humanity's most productive space exploration mission spanned the 1980s, as Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 toured the outer planets. After a journey off 12 years and 4.4 billion miles, Voyager 2 in 1989 passed within 3,000 miles of Neptune's frigid methane clouds sending back pictures and data about the distant planet and its environment

Meanwhile, the earth's fragile environment became the primary focus of scientists world-wide. Fuel-hungry industrial nations during the decade altered the environment in ways that will challenge science into the distant future.

British researchers in 1985 found a hole in the ozone level over Antarctica, sparking a debate over its cause and significance. An international agreement on controlling the production of ozone-depleting chemicals was signed in 1987, and increasing inquiry focused on the "greenhouse effect" - climatic changes caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, superconductors and Utah-born nuclear cold fusion (announced by U. chemistry professor B. Stanley Pons and British chemist Martin Fleischmann) gave hope of cheap, clean and limitless energy to a world whose energy resources are in danger of extinction.

American youth, armored by the prehistoric dinosaurs, resurrected them from extinction. Movie and toy makers took advantage of the craze.

In the '80s, computers took over the world.

In offices and homes, words like "byte" and "modem" were added to the vocabulary of thousands of people caught up in a craze of uplinking and downloading. One out of every five U.S. homes now has a PC - giving Americans more free time for more work.

Wizardry didn't stop there.

New, high-tech fiber-optic phone lines were installed to accommodate sensitive new computerized facsimile transmission equipment, or "faxes." Portable cellular telephones also came on bit at the end of the decade, thus making it possible to send or receive a fax from your car.

By the decade's end 60 percent of Americans fast-forwarded it with VCRs. Camcorders and CD discs were sold by the millions.


(Additional information)

Top 10 milestones in science and technology

1. Shuttle Challenger disaster

2. Voyager planetary tour

3. Launch of shuttle Discovery; Space program flies again

4. Super-computer

5. Ozone hole discovery

6. Superconductivity

7. Cold nuclear fusion

8. FAX Machines 9. Portable cellular telephones

10. Camcorders, compact discs and other home entertainment gadgets.


(Additional information)

Personal computers: One out of every five U.S. homes boots up.

CDs: 150 million discs singing

Cellular phones: 1.5 million cars are equipped with one.

Sony Walkmans: 25 million currently playing

VCRs: 60 percent of Americans own one

Microwaves: Helping feed 60 million homes

Camcorders: 7.5 million sold in five years