NASA's Apollo technology has changed history

Apollo lunar program made a staggering contribution to high tech development

Forty years after astronauts on NASA's Apollo 11 spacecraft first landed on the moon, many experts say the historic event altered the course of space exploration as well man's view of itself in the universe.

The Apollo missions also had another major affect on the world -- rapidly accelerating the pace of technology development. The work of NASA engineers at the time caused a dramatic shift in electronics and computing systems, scientists say.

Without the research and development that went into those space missions, top companies like Intel Corp. may not have been founded, and the population likely wouldn't be spending a big chunk of work and free time using laptops and Blackberries to post information on Facebook or Twitter.

"During the mid- to late-1960s, when Apollo was being designed and built, there was significant advancement," said Scott Hubbard, who worked at NASA for 20 years before joining the faculty at Stanford University, where he is a professor in the aeronautics and astronautics department. "Power consumption. Mass. Volume. Data rate. All the things that were important to making space flight feasible led to major changes in technology. A little told story is how much NASA, from the Cold War up through the late '80s or early '90s affected technology."

It's fairly well-known that technology developed by NASA scientists routinely makes its way into products developed in the robotics, computer hardware and software, nanotechnology, aeronautics, transportation and health care industries. While the story that Tang, the bright orange powdered beverage, was developed for astronauts is just a myth, many other advancements - think micro-electromechanical systems, supercomputers and microcomputers, software and microprocessors - were also created using technology developed by NASA over the past half century.

Hubbard noted that overall, $US7 or $US8 in goods and services are still produced for every $US1 that the government invests in NASA.

But the string of Apollo missions alone -- which ran from the ill-fated, never-flown Apollo 1 mission in 1967 to Apollo 17, the last to land men on the moon, in 1972 - had a critical, and often overlooked impact on technology at a key time in the computer industry.

Daniel Lockney, the editor of Spinoff, NASA's annual publication that reports on the use of the agency's technologies in the private sector, said the advancements during the Apollo missions were staggering.

"There were remarkable discoveries in civil, electrical, aeronautical and engineering science, as well as rocketry and the development of core technologies that really pushed technology into the industry it is today," he said. "It was perhaps one of the greatest engineering and scientific feats of all time. It was huge. The engineering required to leave Earth and move to another heavenly body required the development of new technologies that before hadn't even been thought of. It has yet to be rivaled."

Lockney cited several technologies that can be directly linked engineering work done for the Apollo missions.

Software designed to manage a complex series of systems onboard the capsules is an ancestor to the software that today is used in retail credit card swipe devices, he said. And race car drivers and firefighters today use liquid-cooled garments based on on the devices created for Apollo astronauts to wear under their spacesuits. And the freeze-dried foods developed for Apollo astronauts to eat in space are used today in military field rations, known as MREs, and as part of survival gear.

And those technologies are just a drop in the bucket to importance of the development of the integrated circuit, and the emergence of Silicon Valley, which were very closely linked to the Apollo program.

The development of that integrated circuit, the forbearer to the microchip, basically is a miniaturized electronic circuit that did away with the manual assembly of separate transistors and capacitors. Revolutionizing electronics, integrated circuits are used in nearly all electronic equipment today.

While Robert Noyce, co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and then Intel Corp. is credited with co-founding the microchip, Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments demonstrated the first working integrated circuit that was built for the U.S. Department of Defense and NASA.

NASA, according to Lockney, set the parameters of what it needed out of the technology and then Kilby designed it. Kilby later won the Nobel Prize in Physics for for creating the technology.

"The co-investment between defense and civilian space was very real and hugely important," said Hubbard.

"With Apollo, they needed to cut down on weight and power consumption. Mass into space equals money," he said. "It has been and continues to be about $US10,000 a pound to get to lower Earth orbit. They certainly don't want computers that take up basketball courts. They want something very powerful and very light that doesn't take massive power. That was one of the driving requirements that led to the development of the integrated circuit, where you put all the components on a chip rather than having a board stuffed with individual transistors and other circuit components."

He added that the microchip took the high-tech industry to a place of mass production and economies of scale.

"There was a major shift in electronics and computing and at least half credit goes to Apollo," said Hubbard. "Without it, you wouldn't have a laptop. You'd still have things like the Univac."

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Sharon Gaudin

Computerworld
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