Three cheers for Apollo!
(and why the ^%$$*@ have we not been back yet?)
That is how an interesting article on Ars Technica introduced a retrospective of the fantastic Apollo program, two days ago. Why – well, many, to their eternal shame, forget that two days ago it was the 45th anniversary of the moon landing of Apollo 11, which put two heroes, Neil and Buzz, safely on the moon.
These days one can read all kinds of “interesting” things on Apollo. From the completely absurd (conspiracies, et cetera, ad nauseum) to the complete denial of the landings – excellent photo’s of the landing sites, complete with footprints, equipment, notwithstanding. And everything in between. But what irritates me beyond words is how many do not even realize the colossal, incalculable benefits that Apollo-era development, research and technology has brought us – and still does.
It has been said that every dollar invested in Apollo came back 10,000 fold. Personally I think even that optimistic figure is an understatement. Not only is space exploration extremely important – especially for technological and energy research and development – but the opportunities and eventual future as well as the key to survival of mankind lies in space. I am thoroughly convinced of all this, and more. Its no secret that I am a big, big fan of space exploration and NASA in particular. So read my ramblings with that in mind. But I think I have some pretty good arguments why Apollo was such a colossal boon to mankind. And why it is nothing short of a complete scandal that space exploration by NASA has been reduced to something pathetic by successive administrations – especially the ones that consider themselves “progressive”. Which they are not. But I digress.
You see, many can’t even name one thing that resulted from Apollo. And that is really sad, because there is so much and in so many areas of human endeavor. Literally far too much to list here. But I’ll give it a try.
Microelectronics and computer science
In an era where transistorized, yet room-sized, computers were considered absolutely cutting-edge and state-of-the-art, the Apollo-era scientists were required to come up with not one, but several, multiple-redundant, fail-safe, fail-over, load-balancing computer systems with multi-user, multi-tasking operating systems and even – admittedly stretching the term a bit – some early form of virtual machines. Absolutely stunningly they did succeed and even surpassed their goals, even when using the absolutely tiny memory capacities of that era. Not only were the Apollo-era computers amazingly versatile and well-suited for their tasks, these machines did (even by todays standards) spectacularly complex tasks spectacularly well. And all that using technology that is even forgotten these days – but don’t forget that modern chips have been largely stimulated and developed by and thanks to Apollo and the programs preceding and succeeding it. In fact at one time during the Apollo program NASA was the largest computer chip “consumer” worldwide. The Apollo-era space borne computers were the first all-integrated-circuit computers, using small-scale integrated DTL logic and early forms of ROM (Read-Only memory) in the form of rope-core memory. A fantastic feat of engineering and computer science, of which we still benefit today. Not to mention the experience in programming techniques and quality management that also resulted.
Surely many may have heard the saying that during those days even the largest mainframe computers were less powerful than a cellphone these days. To some degree that is true, but don’t forget that many of these systems were purpose built. For example, the LVDC (Launch Vehicle Digital Computer) which guided and controlled the entire mighty Saturn V stack from ignition sequence start to orbital insertion in every conceivable aspect was specifically designed (with triple redundancy!) to do just that and nothing more. But that was quite a bit! The interfaces with this even by modern standards spectacularly modern piece of hardware (for example: 12-layer-boards were used, absolutely unique not until several decades later) were very interesting as well. For example, this computer had to control also the gimbals of the engines and everything associated with it, from the 30,000 horsepower (per engine!) fuel pumps up to controlling the complete stack of turbomachinery and gimballing the mighty F1 engines producing 200,000,000 (that’s two-hundred million) horsepower equivalent per engine: for a total of a staggering one-billion horsepower equivalent. The Saturn V is still the most complex, most heavy-lifting, most colossal vertically moving object ever produced by man. And also the most powerful – nothing since even came close. It was also the loudest object ever: from ignition sequence start to launch commit (when the LVDC commits to launch, releases umbilicals, and the vehicle starts moving, balancing on the thrust equivalent of 1 billion horsepower) where all engines are running at full power the only thing louder is a nuclear explosion.
By today’s standards that computer had a painfully slow CPU, architecture, memory, interfaces, and whatnot. Everything was “slow”. But everything was purposefully designed, built, and tested very, very well: the core software was incredibly efficient (machine) code, and the entire machine was more than fast enough to do all these tasks (and many more, such as telemetry and so forth) more than well enough. This innovative computer system and its interfaces with the many subsystems was designed and built by IBM.
And that was just one computer – there were many more. Typical for the Apollo-era was the fact that many systems and subsystems were designed and built by different vendors, yet all had to work seamlessly together. For example, the LEM (Lunar Excursion Module) and CM (Command Module) computers – again, several redundant systems – were designed and built by MIT. Using completely different technology than their IBM counterpart in the form of the LVDC – but again, using at that time state-of-the-art integrated circuit chips. The machine used here was unique for its day, in both redundancy, capability, and light-weight compactness. By the end of the Apollo program (and even while Apollo was still running) the machine was of course already obsolete: also thanks to Moore’s Law which was stimulated by Apollo quite a bit.
The lore goes that the AGC (Apollo Guidance Computer) almost caused the famous Apollo 11 to abort the first landing on the moon because “it failed”. That is, as is so often the case, typical sloppy-reporting nonsense. It didn’t fail at all. In fact it did exactly what it was supposed to do: it warned the operators (the astronauts) that it was getting too busy and was dropping some (non-essential) tasks that were running simultaneously. Remember: this too was a fully functional multi-tasking, multi-user system crammed into a few Kilobytes (that’s not Megabytes or Gigabytes) of ROM and RAM. Why was it dropping tasks (1201 and 1202 error in Apollo-LEM lore)? Simple: during simulations nobody even considered powering down the rendezvous radar. When the down-looking lunar-landing radar was switched on as well, and the computer had to interpret that data too, the occasional false echo’s on the rendezvous (docking) radar “overloaded” the system. So the computer did what it was programmed to do: dump some far less important ballast (tasks) and warn the astronauts. At no time there was any danger of a crash or other mission critical failures.
So this too was one heck of a system, running on a slightly over one (1) Megahertz clock frequency and interfacing with countless extremely complex spacecraft systems, including doing things like non-trivial high-precision calculations, interpreting radar data from several radars, interfacing with inertial guidance systems, rocket engine gimballing and thruster control, telemetry, and so much more. All in all absolutely fantastic, especially for that time!
So, in conclusion, it is safe to say that modern microelectronics and programming techniques benefited spectacularly from the Apollo program. And, additionally, I think it is safe to say that modern microelectronics are completely essential these days! For anyone interested in the technology (and possibly debunking some of the idiots on the Internet who insist that many core Apollo-era technologies cannot possibly have worked, including the LEM computer) there are some very interesting websites. One of the better ones can be found at: http://klabs.org/history/build_agc/
A few more results of the Apollo-era technological progress and development are as follows (but by no means complete- for example, the field of medical technology and pharmaceuticals has benefited tremendously too):
Cooling Suits Cool suits, which kept Apollo astronauts comfortable during moon walks, are today worn by race car drivers, nuclear reactor technicians, shipyard workers, people with multiple sclerosis and children with a congenital disorder known as hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia, which restricts the body’s ability to cool itself.
Recycling Fluids -Special kidney dialysis machines were created as a result of a NASA-developed chemical process that removes toxic waste from used dialysis fluid. The process saves electricity and eliminates the need for a continuous water supply, granting the patient greater freedom.
Astronaut Conditioning Equipment Keeps People Fit -A cardiovascular conditioner developed for astronauts in space led to the invention of a physical therapy and athletic development machine used by football teams, sports clinics, and medical rehabilitation centers.
Space Suit Technology Modernizes Athletic Shoes -Athletic shoe design and manufacturing also benefited from Apollo. Space suit technology is incorporated into a shoe’s external shell, and a stress-free “blow molding” process adapted from NASA space suit design is used in the shoe’s fabrication.
Reflective Materials Insulate Homes -Insulating barriers made of metalized foil laid over a core of propylene or mylar, which protected astronauts and their spacecraft’s delicate instruments from radiation and heat, are now found in common home insulation. Vacuum metalizing techniques also led to an extensive line of commercial products, from insulated outer garments to packaging for foods, from wall coverings to window shades, from life rafts to candy wrappings, and from reflective safety blankets to photographic reflectors.
Apollo Life Support Systems Filter Water -Not many people are aware that NASA technology enables cheap, safe, and super-clean water these days. Before the space program, many viruses and bacteria could not be killed, not even by prolonged boiling of water. Water purification technology used on the Apollo spacecraft – including reverse osmosis – is now employed in several spinoff applications to kill bacteria, viruses and algae in community water supply systems and cooling towers. Filters mounted on faucets reduce lead in water supplies.
Freeze-Dried Foods Preserve Nutrients, Increase Shelf Life -Freeze-dried food solved the problem of what to feed an astronaut on the long-duration Apollo missions. Freeze drying foods preserves nutritional value and taste, while also reducing weight and increasing shelf life.
Apollo-era Circuitry Preserves Freshness for Large-Scale Service –A hospital food service system employs a NASA cook/chill concept for serving food. The system allows staff to prepare food well in advance, maintain heat, visual appeal, and nutritional value while reducing operating costs.
Measurement Techniques Safely Monitor Hazardous Gasses -A hollow retroreflector, a mirror-like instrument that reflects light and other radiation back to the source, is used as a sensor to detect the presence of hazardous gases in oil fields, refineries, offshore platforms, chemical plants, waste storage sites, and other locations where gases could be released into the environment.
Lubricant Process Finds Myriad Applications -A process for bonding dry lubricant to space metals led to the development of surface enhancement, or synergistic, coatings, which are used in applications from pizza making to laser manufacturing. Each coating is designed to protect a specific metal group or group of metals to solve problems encountered under operating conditions, such as resistance to corrosion and wear.
Green Buildings Employ Space Suit Textiles -The same fabric used in Apollo-era space suits has been spun off into a cost-effective, environmentally-friendly building material. Used on structures around the world, the Teflon-coated fiberglass strands create a permanent, tent-like roof. Less expensive than conventional roofing materials, the durable white fabric allows natural light to shine through, saving a significant amount of energy.
Insulation Protects Alaskan Pipeline -Metal-bonded polyurethane foam insulation developed for protecting Apollo-era spacecraft was also applied to the Alaskan pipeline, where its temperature controlling properties were in high demand. In order to maintain its fluidity, the oil needs to be kept at relatively high temperatures (180 °F), a tall order in the Arctic. The NASA-derived insulation solved this problem.
Flame-Resistant Textiles Safeguard Firefighters, Soldiers -After a fire on the Apollo launch pad which resulted in the death of three astronauts, NASA worked with private industry to develop a line of fire-resistant textiles for use in space suits and vehicles. These materials are now used in numerous firefighting, military, motor sports, and other applications.
Of course cryogenic fuel cells, producing both electricity and drinking water at the same time, were one of the many pioneering technologies developed and deployed on the Apollo-era missions.
All this, and so much more, such as all kinds of special plastics, lubricants, techniques and technologies were first pioneered in space – most of them during the fantastic and inspiring Apollo missions.
Which raises the questions: why have we not been back? Why do we have a mere shadow of the glorious days of Apollo in terms of a space program? Of course there are the usual internet-armchair “experts” and their endless mind-numbing babble about conspiracies and whatnot, but the fact is that NASA these days is very poorly funded. For Apollo-era exploration and results, vision, political courage and especially funding is required. None of that can be found in today’s sorry political environment.
A very sad state of affairs indeed.
It was a Russian scientist, who started as a school teacher with a long scruffy beard – by the name of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky – who very correctly and aptly remarked that “The earth is the cradle of mankind – one cannot remain in the cradle forever”. A very wise remark indeed. But my favorite observation is from that legendary flight director, the one and only Gene Kranz.
Gene has a way with people. He would look you straight in the eye, and tell you exactly like it is. And, trust me on this, his truthful statements let absolutely no doubt about it – he was simply right and resistance was futile. And indeed he was right. Gene once said, with typical emphasis on his words:
“We humans are unlimited beings. We can do anything, as long as we are willing to commit”.
And that, dear reader, is what is missing these days, in so many areas of human endeavor – not just space exploration (or the lack thereof).
Unfortunately. But I say: three cheers for Apollo!