Apollo 11: One Giant Leap for Software

NASA Apollo Computer Circuit
Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex (GDSCC) – Apollo Guidance Computer Circuit

There are two types of countries:

1. Those that use the metric system 📏

2. Those that have landed a man on the moon 🌙

How much computing power is required to get to the moon?

For somebody who works in information technology (IT), I’ve always been a history buff (and space geek).

Fun fact: A smartphone is millions of times more powerful than all the computers that landed humanity on the moon.

On 16 July 1969, a group of dedicated people began a journey to land a person on our nearest celestial neighbor. Four days later, they put a man on the moon. This one endeavor took nearly a decade in the making, requiring stunning feats in engineering, computer science, and contingency planning. Success depended on system redundancy and resilience. One error could derail the mission and lead to failure. Welcome to the Space Race.

Historically, the Space Age coincides with cybernetics – the science of communications and automated control systems. In fact, computerized control systems were essential to the guidance and operation of the complex machinery required to place humans and machine in space. There is no doubt the Apollo 11 moon landing marks a significant moment in human technological achievement. When future historians write the chapter of the 20th century, I believe NASA’s Apollo program will be its first paragraph. Armstrong. Aldrin. Collins. Their place in history is secured, to be sure. But what about the computers and software that took humanity to the moon?

NASA Goldstone Apollo Antenna
Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex (GDSCC) – Apollo Antenna

A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit NASA’s Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex (GDSCC) during a military training exercise. I was in nerd heaven. During my trip I was able to see things like the Spaceflight Tracking and Data Network (STDN) and Apollo Antenna which were originally built to support the manned Apollo missions to the moon. This prototype would later become the first node of the Deep Space Network (DSN), paving the way for things like interplanetary communication and the Global Positioning System (GPS). There is no denying the profound influence Apollo had on modern computing and software development. But what struck me the most was the seeming simplicity of the technology used. More precisely, just how far we have come in such a short time.

NASA Apollo Computer
Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex (GDSCC) – Apollo Guidance Computer

When Apollo 11 blasted off, guidance, navigation, telemetry, and the spacecraft were controlled by customized hardware and software. For a majority of the trip, Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins were passengers in a sophisticated machine. Today, we struggle with a variation of that theme. As a contemporary example, imagine going on the same trip and putting your life in the virtual hands of Alexa or Siri.

“Alexa, open the pod bay doors.” Thanks, but no thanks.

In 1969, the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) was the most advanced device humanity had built. The AGC was the first integrated circuit computer. During my stroll down memory lane at GDSCC, I was reminded that without the complex array of data systems, Armstrong’s immortal words may never have been spoken. These antiquated behemoths ushered in a new era of discovery and innovation. Apollo 11 remains a testament to the ingenuity, passion, and devotion of the thousands upon thousands of scientists, engineers, and coders who made landing a man on the moon possible.

What can Apollo 11 teach us about the human-machine relationship? In 1969, humanity decided to trust machines, and the ones and zeros that make up the two-digit binary code, to transport us to a brave new world. Much like Apollo, the modern era is a delicate dance of technology and human desire to explore the unknown. Half a century later we still trust machines and software to automate our world and guide our future – one giant leap at a time.

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