(I originally intended this posting to go to the American Dialect Society mailing list, but the Stanford mailer rejected it repeatedly. So I’m posting it here and will post a note to ADS-L about it. Sigh. This is a somewhat edited version of that posting.)
Ann Burlingham caught this on NPR’s All Things Considered, 4/23/09. Robert Siegel was interviewing Air Force Colonel Steven Kleinman, who objected to harsh interrogation techniques in Iraq. At one point Kleinman said:
And so, people were reaching out to other methods, not understanding the subtle yet profound difference — using a method that was proven successful in obtaining propaganda, while on the surface it seems very effective, underneath it all it is very ineffective and counterproductive. … Any individual can force any other individual to admit to practically anything, but that’s not the purpose of interrogation. I could see these people had lost the bubble on that.
What attracted her attention was “lost the bubble” [roughly] ‘got off-course’.
Burlingham then found an account of the expression’s origin, from a livejournal [logrusboy] commenter:
Lost the bubble: one of those nifty aviation instruments uses an air bubble to keep track of which direction is up. During spinny or turbulent maneuvers, the bubble can become difficult to find and unreliable, leading to mistakes about that whole concept of where to find the ground. This often ends badly. (link)
But others see a naval origin:
Lose the bubble: Originally, to assume such an extreme up- or down-angle in a submarine that the bubble of the inclinometer is no longer visible. In common usage, to lose SITUATIONAL AWARENESS. (link)
BUBBLEHEAD: slang for a submariner, from the necessary preoccupation with the BOAT’s trim gauge; may be spelled “bubble-head”, and also known as BOOMER, DOLPHIN, DIPPER. Compare SKIMMER, AIRDALE, SHELLBACK; see GUPPY, SUBMARINE. [(in original) nb: to "lose the bubble" is to be disoriented, or so far out of control that the SUBMARINE is in jeopardy; see PITCH, YAW, ROLL, ATTITUDE ADJUSTMENT] (link)
(I’m not a lexicographer, so I hoped — and still hope — that some keen ADS-Ler would do the tracking back of sources.)
And then, from a book chapter on “expert operators and critical tasks”, with an extended sense:
Those who man the combat operations centers of U.S. Navy ships use the term “having the bubble” to indicate that they have been able to construct and maintain the cognitive map that allows them to integrate such diverse inputs as combat status, information flows from sensors and remote observation, and the real-time status and performance of the various weapons and systems into a single picture of the ship’s overall situation and operational status.
For the casual visitor to the operations center, the multitude of charts and radar displays, the continuous flow of information from console operators and remote sources of surveillance and intelligence, the various displays that indicate weapons systems status, what aircraft are aloft, and who is in them, the inputs from ship and senior staff, are overwhelming. What surprised us at first was that even experienced officers did not attempt to make overall status assessments on the basis of a casual visit. Only when you have the bubble do these pieces begin to fall into place as parts of a large, coherent picture.
Given the large amount of information, and the critical nature of the task, creating and maintaining the required state of representational mapping, situational awareness, and cognitive and task integration is a considerable strain. On many ships, operations officer shifts are held to no more than two hours. “Losing the bubble” is a serious and ever-present threat… (link)
Then there are uses outside military contexts, with a somewhat different extended sense:
[business context] To forget about or neglect. “I’ve lost the bubble on the Henderson account. Where do we stand?” Submitted by Christine C. (link)
… we will never get this country back in the hands of the citizens unless we get the attention of those we send to congress. I believe that most are voted in with a desire to work for their state or district, then start going to cocktail parties, hanging out in fern bars and wanting their peers to “like” them. They lose the bubble at that point and forget who sent them there. [but from the commenter "SeaDog", so there might be a military connection] (link)
So we have a family of uses of bubble, apparently radiating out from aviation and nautical uses. (These uses of bubble are not in the OED.)