How Far We’ve Come

Next month is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. And yes, the astronauts did take a portable computer to the moon with them. Two in fact (one in the orbiter and one in the lunar module.)

The 70 lb minicomputers that came along had the special purpose of navigation from lunar orbit and assisting the astronauts in steering the lunar lander to the touchdown at Tranquility Base. The main navigation from earth to moon was accomplished with the aid of NASA’s room-sized mainframe computers.

The smaller unit was designed by Fairchild Semiconductor and was arguably the first solid state machine. Its instruction set was a wire rope ROM that was woven by hand with copper wire and metal cores.

The computer got overloaded on descent, and crashed more than once. Fortunately, its creators had programmed it to save the navigational data and restart. The mission continued, although according to an article in this month’s WIRED magazine it was a close run thing. Nobody realized how bad the situation was at the time.

NASA figured out why the computer was crashing and made some adjustments during the moonwalk. So everything went smoothly on departure from the moon’s surface.

One of the principal designers of the Apollo Guidance Computer at Fairchild was Gordon Moore, who later helped found Intel and was responsible for Moore’s Law – a key postulate in the miniaturization and scalability of computer technology,

And my, how far we have come from the lunar guidance computer.

  • 10 years later we had microprocessors and the first practical microcomputers.
  • 20 years later we had color graphics monitors, graphical operating systems, and the beginning of the Internet.
  • 30 years later we were online, downloading music and video, and broadband was coming fast.
  • 40 years later we had smartphones, tablets and mobile tech.
  • 50 years later we have broadband mobile and the Internet of Things, and you can contact the world from your refrigerator.

It is remarkable to note that although the Apollo Guidance Computer was ahead of its time, a modern automobile has much greater computing power. In fact, your smartphone is 120 MILLION times faster than the psychedelic era AGC. Even a Google search today uses more computing resources than it took to send Apollo 11 to the moon. And that includes the mainframes from the 1960s in the bargain.

We’ve come a long way, but let’s not forget the foundation on which all the computer tech of today was built. Here’s to the Apollo Mission and its pioneering guidance computer.

 

 

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