By Agence France-Presse
We’ve all been there: you’re working on something important, your PC crashes, and you lose all your progress.
Such a failure was not an option during the Apollo missions, the first time ever that a computer was entrusted with handling flight control and life support systems — and therefore the lives of the astronauts on board.
Despite an infamous false alarm during lunar descent that sent Commander Neil Armstrong’s heart rate racing, it was a resounding success that laid the groundwork for everything from modern avionics to multitasking operating systems.
Here are some of the ways the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC), millions of times less powerful than a 2019 smartphone, shaped the world we live in today:
Integrated circuits, or microchips, were a necessary part of the miniaturization process that allowed computers to be placed on board spacecraft, in contrast to the giant, power-hungry vacuum tube technology that came before.
The credit for their invention goes to Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments, and Robert Noyce, who co-founded Fairchild Semiconductor and later Intel in Mountain View, California.
But NASA and the Department of Defense — which needed microchips to guide their Minuteman ballistic missiles pointed at the Soviet Union — greatly accelerated their development by producing the demand that facilitated mass production.
“They had these incredible, absolutely insane requirements for reliability that nobody could possibly imagine,” Frank O’Brien, a spaceflight historian and author of “The Apollo Guidance Computer: Architecture and Operation,” told AFP.
In the early 1960s, the two agencies bought almost all the microchips made in the US, roughly a million all told, added O’Brien, forcing the makers to improve their designs and build circuits that lasted longer than their early life cycles of just a few hours.