Saturday, July 20 will mark the 50th anniversary since three Apollo 11 astronauts became the first humans to land a spacecraft on the moon. The extraordinary NASA mission occurred before the arrival of the computer age which has since revolutionised technology. NASA says the computer system used for its shuttle had a minuscule 64KB of memory. And the space agency says much of the technology was “unknown” at the time, meaning scientists had no clue about what might happen.
One major concern was “that the lunar module might sink right into the surface or become stuck in it” for example.
But clever boffins were still capable of producing pioneering inventions and machinery that stand the test of time half a century later.
You may well be using an Apollo 11 technology today when driving your car – the digital fly-by-wire technology.
NASA says it “was unheard-of at the time but it is now integral to airliners and is even found in most cars”.
So what is it? In a fly-by-wire system, an aircraft can be controlled by computers rather than by mechanical backup.
Preceding the Apollo 11 landings, pilots had to control planes using cables and rods to connect to crucial piloting control systems such as tail rudders.
NASA commissioned Draper Lavatories to build a computer system to help guide the planned mission “more precisely” and “eliminate human error”.
NASA explains how it worked in a blog post on the space agency’s website: “The Apollo Primary Guidance, Navigation and Control System converted pilots’ inputs into electrical signals and fed them to the Apollo Guidance Computer, along with information from various sensors.
“The computer then decided how to adjust control firings to achieve the desired outcome.
“Being digital, rather than analog, the computer could make use of complex software and store large amounts of data.”
Following the success of Apollo 11, the technology was tested endlessly back on earth to see how it might be used in flights.
None other than Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong himself helped push fly-by-wire systems into commercial aircraft.
Dryden researchers used the Apollo Primary Guidance, Navigation, and Control System (PGNCS) used during the 1969 moon landings on three test F-8C Crusaders.
They proved the viability of the technology over 200 flights, which is now an integral part of commercial aircraft.
Dryden engineer Ken Szalai, who went on to becomes its centre director, was quoted in NASA’s Spinoff publication as saying the techniques from then were revolutionary.
He said: “Some of the techniques we developed at that time are still being used, and that spawned the digital fly-by-wire revolution,
“We communicated with all of the major airframe manufacturers and were able to transfer a lot of the technology.”
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