It is now 50 years since Apollo 11 delivered Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin onto the surface of the Moon.
Thinking that NASA’s Apollo program paid its way by giving us such technological marvels as non-stick frypans and pens that write in zero gravity is like thinking Richard Feynman’s greatest creation was a few new riffs on the bongo drum. For a more informed view, check out the brilliant BBC World Service 13-part podcast series Thirteen Minutes to the Moon.
For instance, in the episode “The fourth astronaut” we learn that the world’s first digital portable general-purpose computer was developed in the Apollo program. Margaret Hamilton, a twenty-something MIT mathematics graduate, was in charge of the team developing the software for Apollo’s Guidance Computer. Along the way, they invented completely new ideas, such as the notion of error detection and recovery. These routines were fully put to the test during the final 3 minutes of the lunar lander’s descent to the Moon’s surface when the famous 1202 program alarm went off. This gave Neil Armstrong a bit of a jolt, and caused Hamilton’s recovery code to take over the system, rebooting it, while protecting what it determined at that instant to be the mission-critical tasks and data, and redistributing computer resources to other less important tasks as it saw fit. This was all in the nick of time to save the mission (and possibly the lives of the astronauts). Margaret Hamilton – amongst many other things – was a true pioneer in “software engineering”, which term she herself is credited with coining.
The hardware was pretty phenomenal, too. The Guidance Computer code was literally knitted into core rope read-only memory by expert seamstresses: copper wires threaded through magnetic rings were 1s, and around rings they were zeros. Talk about hardwired code.
Lest you think Margaret Hamilton was particularly young to have been operating in this arena, Gene Kranz, the White Team Chief Flight Director on the moonshot, noted that the majority of folk – men and women – working on the Apollo program were younger than 30. Apparently, many of those persons, fresh out of college and working at their first job, assumed all jobs were kind of like this and, in blissful ignorance of the enormity of the challenges, just got on with it.
Thirteen Minutes is a fitting tribute to the Apollo program. Not only does it look in depth at the technology and the people behind the technology, it tells us of the tragedies (the Apollo 1 fire) and the drama (performing critical course corrections while absolutely alone in orbit behind the moon), reminds us of the fragility and sublime beauty of our own home planet (the story behind the Earthrise photo), and gets the adrenaline surging (riding the Saturn V beast was not for the faint-hearted), while all set within the zeitgeist of the 60s.
As momentous as Apollo 11’s achievements were, Thirteen Minutes argues the case that Apollo 8’s achievements were greater. Apollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft to leave Earth orbit. As the capsule passed behind the Moon and communication dropped out, Mission Control emptied as practically everybody raced to the loo, reminding us that we are yet biological creatures, with certain bodily functions that must be performed.
Neil Armstrong has always been a bit of a hero of mine. Apart from his obvious courage, he was intelligent, educated and self-effacing. He seemed to understand that the moon landing was much bigger than he was, and he never tried to make it all about him.
Part of me wasn’t looking forward to this anniversary, thinking it would just provide another platform for the obnoxious moon-landing hoaxers to come out from under their stones. Happily, here in the US where I am on vacation, I haven’t seen any of them yet. There are numerous discussion forums on the moon-landing hoax. A good one is Cosmoquest – check out this for discussion on all kinds of conspiracy theories. These exchanges can be hilarious and infuriating, but they can also be very educational. For example, what do *you* think the temperature is on the Moon?