Monday, 27 August 2012

The right stuff

Today I celebrate one of my lifelong heroes. On July the 20th, 1969, as  I was being born in a hospital in Macclesfield, Neil Armstrong took that iconic first step from the Eagle module onto the dusty surface of the moon.

When people consider the dangers of space travel, they like to think about the cold vacuum of space, or the radiation, or meteorites. It's a pretty dangerous place to be strapped to an overgrown firework! 

Then you add that they went there in equipment that had far less processing power than an iPhone, and you get some idea of the risks these men took.

The Apollo space missions had a computer system imaginatively called the 'Apollo Guidance Computer' (AGC). It was revolutionary at the time. It had 16 x 8 bit processors, reaching a speed of about 1 MHz (iPhone runs on 800MHz). Hobbyists are now making them in their basements for fun. 

During the moon landing phase of the Apollo 11 mission, there was great concern, because one of the crew had left a flight radar system on. When they went into land, they switched their landing radar on. Both radars functioning at the same time caused the AGC to overload. It was very fortunate that Neil Armstrong was ignoring the landing radar and landing by sight, manually, 4 miles from the agreed place with only 20 seconds of fuel left.  

The simplicity of the AGC also made it extremely complicated to fix. While orbiting the moon and preparing to land, the Apollo 14 crew noticed that the abort process was being instigated without anyone pressing the abort switch. The engineers in Cape Canaveral worked out a 'patch', and the crew had to re-program the whole system code before they could land. The whole program took 90 minutes to re-key.

So when you feel like screaming because your laptop won't connect to the internet, or your report is late, just think about Neil Armstrong and his Apollo 11 crew - and their overloaded radar system while in the final descent to the moon, alone in space, 238000 miles from earth.... and ask yourself this question. Did Neil lose his temper and blame his crew? No, he kept his cool and focused on recovery.

Safe journey home, Neil. The world will miss one of it's most enigmatic pioneers.

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