Space flight and computer technology have become so ingrained in our collective psyche, it is easy to forget just how significant an achievement it was to land people on the moon 50 years ago this week.
“Today, your cell phone has more computer power than all of NASA back in 1969, when it placed two astronauts on the moon,” said Michio Kaku, an American physicist and author.
At that time, and for years after, software programmers were still using punch cards.
The onboard computers in the command module and lunar lander weighed 32 kilograms (miniature for the time).
They had 32 KB of RAM, a 72 KB hard drive (ROM) and a processor that ran at 43 kHz.
By comparison, a standard Samsung S9 has 4 GB RAM, a 64 GB hard drive and processes at 2.7 GHz. That’s more than a million times more RAM, approximately 900,000 times more ROM, and nearly 100,000 times more processing power.
Oh, and it weighs 163 grams.
Of course, that is a bit misleading because it is all about software. Your S9 is using all that RAM to run dozens of apps and services simultaneously. The ROM is all taken up with photos of your food and videos of your dog. And the processor is busy downloading—well, whatever—from the Internet.
In 1969, all of NASA’s computing power was focussed on the singular task of safely putting Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the surface of another celestial body 385,000 kilometres away and bringing them, along with Michael Collins, back to Earth.
And the controls were a far cry from the point and click or swipe and tap visual display interfaces we’re used to now. The eight-foot by three-foot instrument panel was an array of mechanical buttons, switches and displays. To navigate, Collins had to take measurements with a sextant and input the data using keyboard commands, but the computer did all the work, calculating course corrections and firing the engines to keep the ship on target.
At one point during the lunar module’s descent, noise from one of its radar systems began feeding bad data to the computer, but recognizing it had a problem, the computer was able to dump the erroneous information and continue the priority task of landing the mission.
It was a stunning feat of software engineering.
“We had to get to the moon, get down, and get back, autonomously,” said NASA historian Frank O’Brien. “They hit their targets of being accurate after a quarter million miles, hitting a target within 500 to 600 feet and [at] one-tenth of a foot a second,” O’Brien said. “And you go, ‘My watch is more powerful.’ No, it is not.”
Then there were the physical challenges. I have seen one of the lunar command modules up close. The National Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa had the Apollo 7 capsule on loan for 30 years. It was tiny, about half the interior volume of a standard cement truck mixer.
The astronauts were in that cramped space, doing all the things humans have to do in addition to their mission tasks, for eight days and three hours—minus 21 hours on the moon for Armstrong and Aldrin.
Imagine living in a closet for more than a week.
There are few truly seminal moments in human history. It is safe to say July 21, 1969 at 9:56 a.m. Pacific Daylight time, the precise moment Armstrong’s boot touched the surface of the moon, is one of those moments.
And it’s not just a matter of the gravity of the moment itself, but the impact that technological achievement had on so much of what we take for granted in our modern world.
As MIT professor and computing historian David Mindell once joked, it marked “the transition between people bragging about how big their computers are … and bragging about how small their computers are.”