Behind the Scenes of the Apollo Mission at MIT


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Fifty years ago this week, humanity made its first expedition to another world, when Apollo 11 touched down on the moon and two astronauts walked on its surface. That moment changed the world in ways that still reverberate today.

MIT’s deep and varied connections to that epochal event — many of which have been described on MIT News — began years before the actual landing, when the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory (now Draper Labs) signed the very first contract to be awarded for the Apollo program after its announcement by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. The Institute’s involvement continued throughout the program — and is still ongoing today.

MIT’s role in creating the navigation and guidance system that got the mission to the moon and back has been widely recognized in books, movies, and television series. But many other aspects of the Institute’s involvement in the Apollo program and its legacy, including advances in mechanical and computational engineering, simulation technology, biomedical studies, and the geophysics of planet formation, have remained less celebrated.

Amid the growing chorus of recollections in various media that have been appearing around this 50th anniversary, here is a small collection of bits and pieces about some of the unsung heroes and lesser-known facts from the Apollo program and MIT’s central role in it.

A New Age in Electronics

The computer system and its software that controlled the spacecraft — called the Apollo Guidance Computer and designed by the MIT Instrumentation Lab team under the leadership of Eldon Hall — were remarkable achievements that helped push technology forward in many ways.

The AGC’s programs were written in one of the first-ever compiler languages, called MAC, which was developed by Instrumentation Lab engineer Hal Laning. The computer itself, the 1-cubic-foot Apollo Guidance Computer, was the first significant use of silicon integrated circuit chips and greatly accelerated the development of the microchip technology that has gone on to change virtually every consumer product.

In an age when most computers took up entire climate-controlled rooms, the compact AGC was uniquely small and lightweight. But most of its “software” was actually hard-wired: The programs were woven, with tiny donut-shaped metal “cores” strung like beads along a set of wires, with a given wire passing outside the donut to represent a zero, or through the hole for a 1. These so-called rope memories were made in the Boston suburbs at Raytheon, mostly by women who had been hired because they had experience in the weaving industry. Once made, there was no way to change individual bits within the rope, so any change to the software required weaving a whole new rope, and last-minute changes were impossible.

As David Mindell, the Frances and David Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing, points out in his book “Digital Apollo,” that system represented the first time a computer of any kind had been used to control, in real-time, many functions of a vehicle carrying human beings — a trend that continues to accelerate as the world moves toward self-driving vehicles. Right after the Apollo successes, the AGC was directly adapted to an F-8 fighter jet, to create the first-ever fly-by-wire system for aircraft, where the plane’s control surfaces are moved via a computer rather than direct cables and hydraulic systems. This approach is now widespread in the aerospace industry, says John Tylko, who teaches MIT’s class 16.895J (Engineering Apollo: The Moon Project as a Complex System), which is taught every other year.

As sophisticated as the computer was for its time, computer users today would barely recognize it as such. Its keyboard and display screen looked more like those on a microwave oven than a computer: a simple numeric keypad and a few lines of five-digit luminous displays. Even the big mainframe computer used to test the code as it was being developed had no keyboard or monitor that the programmers ever saw. Programmers wrote their code by hand, then typed it onto punch cards — one card per line — and handed the deck of cards to a computer operator. The next day, the cards would be returned with a printout of the program’s output. And in this time long before email, communications among the team often relied on handwritten paper notes.

Priceless Rocks

MIT’s involvement in the geophysical side of the Apollo program also extends back to the early planning stages — and continues today. For example, Professor Nafi Toksöz, an expert in seismology, helped to develop a seismic monitoring station that the astronauts placed on the moon, where it helped lead to a greater understanding of the moon’s structure and formation. “It was the hardest work I have ever done, but definitely the most exciting,” he has said.

Toksöz says that the data from the Apollo seismometers “changed our understanding of the moon completely.” The seismic waves, which on Earth continue for a few minutes, lasted for two hours, which turned out to be the result of the moon’s extreme lack of water. “That was something we never expected, and had never seen,” he recalls.

The first seismometer was placed on the moon’s surface very shortly after the astronauts landed, and seismologists including Toksöz started seeing the data right away — including every footstep the astronauts took on the surface. Even when the astronauts returned to the lander to sleep before the morning takeoff, the team could see that Buzz Aldrin ScD ’63 and Neil Armstrong were having a sleepless night, with every toss and turn dutifully recorded on the seismic traces.

MIT Professor Gene Simmons was among the first group of scientists to gain access to the lunar samples as soon as NASA released them from quarantine, and he and others in what is now the Department of Earth, Planetary and Atmospheric Sciences (EAPS) have continued to work on these samples ever since. As part of a conference on campus, he exhibited some samples of lunar rock and soil in their first close-up display to the public, where some people may even have had a chance to touch the samples.

Others in EAPS have also been studying those Apollo samples almost from the beginning. Timothy Grove, the Robert R. Shrock Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, started studying the Apollo samples in 1971 as a graduate student at Harvard University, and has been doing research on them ever since. Grove says that these samples have led to major new understandings of planetary formation processes that have helped us understand the Earth and other planets better as well.

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