Apollo 11 Had a Hidden Hero: Software

Apollo 11 Had a Hidden Hero: Software






Apollo 11 Had a Hidden Hero: Software (wsj.com)



from the history-of-computing dept.

“Monday’s Wall Street Journal includes a special Apollo 11 feature,” writes Slashdot reader Outatime in honor of the 50th anniversary since Apollo 11’s Saturn V launched from the Kennedy Space Center. “[O]f particular interest to many Slashdot nerds is the piece on the pioneering computer hardware and software that took three astronauts, and landed two, on the moon.” Here’s an excerpt from the report: The [MIT Instrumentation Laboratory or I-Lab] was housed in a former underwear factory overlooking the Charles River, now long since demolished. The Apollo engineers and programmers labored at scuffed metal desks in cubicles with code scribbled on the chalkboard, slide rules on the table, cigarette butts on the linoleum floor. Fanfold computer printouts were stacked up to 6 feet high, like termite mounds. The lab had pioneered inertial guidance systems for the nuclear-warhead-tipped missiles of the Cold War, such as the submarine-launched Polaris intercontinental ballistic missiles. Funded by the U.S. Air Force, it also developed a plan in the late 1950s to fly a computerized probe to Mars and back. MIT received the first major Apollo contract, the only one awarded to a university, and the only one given without competitive bidding.

In an era when a computer used fragile tubes, ran on punch cards and filled an entire room, the I-Lab engineers had invented a briefcase-size digital brain packed with cutting-edge integrated circuits and memory so robust it could withstand a lightning bolt — a direct ancestor of almost all computers today. Unlike other machines of its era, it could juggle many tasks at once and make choices of which to prioritize as events unfolded. Apollo missions carried two of these computers, one aboard the command module and one in the lunar lander, running almost identical software. Only the lunar lander, though, required the extra code to set down safely on the moon.

Time is nature’s way of making sure that everything doesn’t happen at once.

Space is nature’s way of making sure that everything doesn’t happen to you.


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