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Now it was really a matter of pride within the MCC community to do something unique to and with your headset. It seemed that only rookies used them the way they were designed! The original M50 was a little rectangular box about an inch long, three-quarters of an inch tall, and maybe a half-inch thick with a microphone tube coming out one end, and a spot to connect an earpiece tube on the other. The straight cord was maybe four-feet long and went to the push-to-talk switch (PTT), which was designed to clip onto a belt, or to hang from a lanyard. Out of the other end of the PTT box was the coiled cord which you connected to the console jacks. The earpiece was a little pink bulb that came in six different sizes and had a short length of soft clear tubing that attached to the headset. The headset had a clip that could attach to the bow of your glasses. If you didn’t wear glasses, they supplied a headband with a little piece that stuck out to clip on the headset.
Now you have to remember that you wore a headset for the entire duty day in the control center, and anything can get old after a while. Many people didn’t like the over-the-head band, which could make you sore after several hours of wearing it. So early on, someone figured out that they could wear the band around their neck and use a piece of fish-tank air tubing or model airplane fuel line to extend the ear-piece tube so that it could reach the ear. They’d then simply orient the voice tube so that it was somewhere near their mouth, and presto – a custom-looking headset! Because I wore glasses, I simply clipped my M50 to the bow, and wore it the way it was designed for most of my career. I was asked a couple years ago by someone working on a movie if flight controllers really wore their headsets around their neck because they wanted the movie to be authentic, and that didn’t make sense to them. Yup – that’s how many of us controllers did it!
In the early 1980s, as the Shuttle program was cranking up, Plantronics came out with their StarSet – a repackaged M50 that clipped over the back and top of the ear, with a voice tube sticking down near the corner of your mouth. Everything else – the cord to the PTT, the PTT, the coiled cord, and the earpiece – were essentially the same. The problem with the StarSet was that, for many people, it didn’t stay on the ear very well – ears are all different shapes and sizes. In my case, wearing glasses, the space over the top of my ear was already occupied by my glasses bow, so I had to put on the StarSet, then put the glass bow outside of it, sort of clamping the headset to the side of my head. Needless to say, this was not terribly comfortable, and after a few hours, it wasn’t fun at all! If I put the StarSet outside of the glasses bow, it fell off my ear when I moved – also not fun!
I should mention that the same exact ear capsule was flown in the shuttle and used by astronauts as a headset – at least until the astronauts sort of rebelled and decided they simply couldn’t keep them on their heads very well in zero-G. There is a great picture of bald Story Musgrave with the StarSet duct taped to the side of his head – it obviously worked that way, but I’d hate to have had to remove the duct tape at the end of the day! Eventually, shuttle crews just quit using headsets altogether, utilizing a handheld mic and a cabin speaker – with seven crewmembers in zero gravity, everyone just got tied up in cords if they all wore headsets.)
Once the StarSet came out, it didn’t take long for folks to figure out that the old “head-band as a neck ring” trick worked better than ever for keeping the bloody thing off your ear. Fortunately, the StarSet came with a little plastic clip to allow you to mount it to a headband (which also came in the set) and you could build it up the same way the “cool” Apollo veterans did. A couple of the old MCC gurus owned a hobby shop in a nearby strip mall for many years, and I expect they did a good business selling model airplane fuel line to flight controllers to extend their earpiece tubes. I think that among the cognoscenti, more StarSets were worn around their necks than over the ears.
Somewhere in the 1990s, the StarSet color changed from black to a beige – apparently to be more fashionable. There was a general consensus that these beige headsets were of poorer quality than the old black ones, because they seemed to break down a lot more. I never saw any actual numbers, of course – it might just be that flight controllers didn’t like new things….