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1998 In Review: A Year Of Success In Space And Technology

Washington, 17 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- An American hero returned to space. The first modules of the international space station were launched. The U.S. computer giant Microsoft went on trial. And a ticking technological time-bomb kept the world marching toward the millennium. All were highlights in the fields of space and technology in 1998.

Perhaps one of the most celebrated moments in 1998 was the return to space of America's first man in orbit. In October, after a 36-year interval, Senator John Glenn (D-Ohio) boarded the space shuttle Discovery and returned to space on a ten-day scientific mission.

Glenn, one of America's best-known space pioneers, first gained worldwide fame by spending just under five hours in orbit around the Earth in a tiny experimental rocket ship in February 1962. This time around, Glenn, age 77, made history again by becoming the oldest human ever to fly in space. During his shuttle flight, Glenn performed age experiments on himself designed to help find cures for chronic ailments suffered by the elderly.

Glenn's return was a personal triumph as well. Historians believe that Glenn was personally grounded after his 1962 flight by then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy because he had become a national hero and Kennedy was afraid of the political fallout if Glenn were killed. Glenn, who retired from the Senate this year, passed all the vigorous mental and physical astronaut tests and told reporters he was delighted to be able to show the world that the elderly were still able to effectively contribute to society. -------------------------

Then in November, the Russian-made "Zarya" -- the first module of a planned multi-thousand million dollar International Space Station -- was launched into orbit from Kazakhstan. A month later, the U.S. sent the space shuttle Endeavor with the next part of the station, a linking structure onto which six modules can be attached. The flight had an American and Russian crew.

There are sixteen countries involved in building the $60 billion space station. It will take an estimated 1,500 hours and dozens of astronauts to assemble. Completion of the orbiting station is scheduled for the year 2004, but the station will officially become operational in January 2000. The first crew to man the station will be composed of one American and two Russians.

Even after the station becomes operational, it will still require at least 33 U.S. shuttle missions and Russian rocket launches. The station will be approximately 108 meters in length, about 88 meters wide, and it will orbit 350 kilometers above Earth. Eventually, the station is expected to become the brightest object in the night sky, with the exception of the moon. -------------------------

On the computer front, what is being called a landmark trial opened in October in a U.S. federal court in Washington. The trial pits the American government against one of the country's most successful high-tech computer software companies, Microsoft. Microsoft's "Windows" computer operating system runs on more than 90 percent of the world's personal computers.

The U.S. Justice Department, joined by numerous states, has charged that Microsoft used the dominance of its Windows software to unfairly create a monopoly in a number of computer fields. That hurts consumers, say government attorneys.

But Microsoft counters that the government suit is unwarranted interference in its business and will hamper producing the best possible products.

The suit is still in court. -------------------------

Perhaps the most well-known computer problem facing just about every country in the world is the Year 2000 problem, better known as the "millennium bug."

The problem dates back to the 1960's and 1970's when technicians used questionable cost-cutting methods to create special microchips. In order to save space and money, the technicians programmed the chips to recognize years as two digits instead of four. For example, when the computer reads the digits 9 and 8, it determines the year is 1998.

So, unless computers are reprogrammed, the year 2000 will register as 00 -- or 1900. Experts say this is certain to create a number of logical inconsistencies, causing the computers to seriously malfunction or shut down altogether.

Since most major institutions around the world such as banks, hospitals, schools, communication and transportation systems, government agencies, businesses and the military are all connected to computers, a failure of any or all of these systems simultaneously might cause the world economy to grind to a halt.

Predictions of what might actually happen on January 1, 2000 vary widely, but most experts agree that there will be at least some chaos and confusion. Experts say that the most vulnerable countries include Russia, France, Japan and Brazil and that utilities -- especially power -- is the sector of the economy most at risk.

The Gartner Group, a leading information technology consulting organization, says that the U.S. is the best prepared, followed by Canada, Australia, South Africa, Israel and Great Britain.

The United Nations is so concerned about the problem that in December, it sponsored the first global conference on the issue.

More than 200 representatives from at least 120 member-states convened in New York in a closed meeting to identify the crisis points in solving the computer problem and discussing ways to cooperate after the problem arrives.

Among those attending were experts from the World Bank, the International Telecommunications Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency.