Space -- The Final Frontier

I can think of no more fitting excerpt to start a page about space exploration, about boldly going where no man has gone before than the words James T. Kirk / William Shatner say at the start of almost any episode from Star Trek:

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Yet back in 1969, on Jul 20th .. a guy, a man, a pilot, an astronaut, did exactly that. Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon, the first person from our planet to step onto another thing in the solar system and said:

That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for Mankind.

Space is Lost

People think I'm not passionate about anything. They are so wrong, there are things that are worth passion and this is one of them.

Space is still the final frontier for the American people. We reached out to to it for so many years, and then gave it up for all the wrong reasons. The brilliant Saturn V moon rocket, still the most powerful machine ever created by mankind, was left to rot. The Apollo space craft, which landed on the moon so many times, yet so few, and which never lost an astronaut on a mission... were discarded. They were discarded and so was the heart of our space program, which had created untold discoveries in so many fields of endeavor: engineering, science, physics, materials, medicine, production, structure ... you name it it was our space program. We lost the greatest non-military industrial complex that the world has ever seen. I don't think we'll ever see anything like it again.

Years later we did nothing as we watched our orbital presence, Skylab burn in the atmosphere. We could have rescued it... but we didn't it was discarded like our other hopes of living in space.

We discarded our program to go where no one had gone before to build a space truck that only went to orbit and no further. A program which, if any one little thing went wrong, people died. And they did -- that vehicle killed more astronauts than had ever been killed by our entire space program. The same project which squandered the technology created before it, as well as the culture that created it. It replaced it with the culture of the lowest bidder.

We will never be able to build anything like a Saturn V again. It requires too much engineering, too much machining, too much time, too much money, too much permits, too much lawyers, too much whatever to happen. In other words, our space program, like our country, it has fallen to the dogs that we let be created. Our space program has fallen, as has our country. We can no longer do great things, to risk for greatness. We have fallen to mediocrity.

I remember as a little kid watching the moon landing on TV. It was black and white TV, and my dad had was home. He put us all in front of the TV, little kids and babes, so that we would see it -- the greatest thing mankind had done. To this day I remember what a Saturn Launch is like -- it is like nothing you have ever seen. To see man orbit, land and walk on the moon for the first time ever.

To watch Skylab go into orbit as our fleet of moon rockets was trashed. Then to see astronauts fixing it because one of the solar panels departed Skylab during ascent. To watch the little Saturn IB on the "milk stool" to make it match the Saturn/Apollo umbilical tower ... it looks comical. The comical end to our great space program.

Saturn / Apollo

The Saturn V moon rocket is the most powerful machine ever built by mankind. See it standing on nothing but flame as it boosts the stack from the pad toward orbit, and you understand power that has control.

Was it perfect -- heck no. It had its problems. What it did was simple -- it worked in spite of it its problems. If something went wrong it ... fixed it!

Random Quotes about Project Apollo:

One thing to remember about Saturn/Apollo is that the phrase largest XXX in the world applied to almost ANY component of the project. That appellation still holds true for almost anything in that program today, 50 years later. It doesn't matter if it is a space craft, lift capacity, engine thrust, building size, vehicle size, whatever. They still are. They are literally larger than life.

Here are just a few I can think of off the top of my head:

Yes, the Saturn V's time to altitude record was beaten by a specially modified F-15, the Streak Eagle years later. Hmmm .. production spacecraft carrying 6.2 million pounds versus a one-off especially lightened fighter for record breaking. It has better numbers, but Saturn V did it every flight!

Saturn / Apollo Flight Locations

Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral Florida, is the Launch facility for the Apollo Missions. The spacecraft is assembled, checked out, and launched at Kennedy. It is named after that great patron of the Space Program, President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in Texas shortly after his last visit to Cape Canaveral.

Houston is the home of the Manned Spaceflight Center, renamed the Johnson Space Flight Center. In the Apollo era the development of the Apollo spacecraft was centered in Houston. During Missions, Houston was the flight control center, Mission Control, and was the ground control facility for the flight. When did flight begin? Once the Saturn/Apollo stack cleared the pad, where it was free of any collision with the LUT, approximately T+10.

Marshall Space Flight Center is where the rocket scientists live. It is where the Saturn Booster was designed. It is located at the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama. This is where engines and boosters were created, developed and tested. The arsenal is full of test stands for rocket engines, including the mighty F-1 which is still the most powerful rocket engine in existence.

Remember that these are the Rocket Scientists. They developed and tested both the engines and the booster stages. A Saturn V S-IC first stage can lift the entire Saturn stack off the ground and accelerate it upward at a decent rate. Imagine the kind of test structure those guys need to hold down one of those first stages during testing!

The Michoud Assembly Facility is where most stages of the Saturn booster were assembled after component testing. During project Apollo, most of the booster stages were assembled in the Michoud plant, and then barged to the cape along the intracoastal waterway. The exception is the S-IVB third stage, which was shipped by Super Guppy to the NASA skid strip. It is located in New Orleans, Louisiana. Wikipedia has a nice summary of it's history.

The Mississippi Test Facility is where all the giant test stands for the Apollo project are located. These include the enormous A and B series stands -- used to test complete S-IC and SII booster stages all up. Remember that the S-IC stage lifts 6.2 Million pounds w/ about 7.5 Million pounds of starting thrust -- the test stand has to hold that all to the ground!

DSN --- Deep Space Network -- Goldstone, CA; Madrid, Spain Canberra, Australia

MSFN -- Manned Space Flight Network

TDRSS -- Tracking Data Relay Satellite System

Wiki links to the above facilities, and other NASA centers.

Components of Launch Complex 39

VAB -- Vertical / Vehicle Assembly Building

"The VAB is not so much a building to house a moon vehicle as a machine to build a moon craft. The Launch Control Center that monitors and tests every component that goes into an Apollo vehicle is not so much a building as an almost-living brain." -- Max Urbahn, Lead VAB Architect

ML -- Mobile Launcher

The MLs were renamed MLPs in the Space Shuttle Era, and I might refer to them with the current acronym.

LUT -- Launch Umbilical Tower

Each ML has a LUT, Launch Umbilical Tower.

The LUT has many features

LUT Support Services

I'm uncertain if the LUT provides / Saturn V uses Liquid or Gaseous Helium. From my random reading, I think it might be gasesous helium, as really high pressures, which is apparently a lot more stable than Super Critical Helium or Liquid Helium. Or, liquid helium is used but only gaseous helium is stored.

Some fluids were considered so toxic that they were handled separately by the MSS, instead of by the general plumbing in the LUT: These are the hypergolic (self-igniting) fuel and oxidizer used for the SM/CM/LM propulsion and RCS (Reaction Control Systems), as well as the APS on the S-IV-B third stage. These were mostly used by the Apollo spacecraft, not the Saturn V booster:

MSS -- Mobile Service Structure

Shortly after a stacked spacecraft on a ML with LUT was brought to a launch pad, the crawler retrieved the MSS from its parking area and brought it up to the pad.

The MSS was installed on a separate set of pedestals on the launch pad hardstand. It has a set of shrouds which fully envelope the Apollo spacecraft itself. There are also two mobile (up/down platforms) which allow access to the side of the booster away from the LUT.

The MSS stays around the spacecraft, protecting it from the elements and allowing access, until the proper moment in the launch countdown when all spacecraft service access and protection is no longer needed. Then the crawler removes it from the pad and returns it to its parking area.

What might not be apparent is that a spacecraft is often installed on a launchpad for a period of a month or more to allow final checks to be completed.

Besides protection of the spacecraft the MSS also allow servicing of the various spacecraft systems, such as loading of its hypergolic propellants, Super Critical Helium, and other items.

Crawler Way -- Crawler Road

The Crawler Way is the road way that the crawler drives on to take the ML with a Saturn / Apollo Stack from the VAB to the pads and back. Recalling the phrase largest in the world, the Crawler is the largest and heaviest land vehicle created. Of course, that is before you add a ML and a Saturn V stack to it. Yeah, it's heavy!

To give you an idea, of the requirements of such a road: It is the equivalent of two 4 lane roads separated by a equally wide median strip. Each of the lanes is followed by one set (L, R) of crawler treads. The roadway is many feet deep, and exists in an area of sand stabilized by compaction that was created for it along with the rest of the space facility. In this sand bed each of the "lanes" of the crawlerway is approximately 8-10' deep, and comprised of 7-8 layers of different substrates. The top surface is Tennessee valley river rock, so chosen to provide a durable surface with a minimal of friction for steering the crawler.

Even then, after the crawler makes a trip along the CrawlerWay, the "road" needs to be tended by modified agricultural equipment to put it back into reasonable shape for further use -- the immense weight of the crawler tears up this purpose designed road every time it moves a spacecraft along it! Yes, the rock needs to be replenished because it is broken up by the weight and motion of the crawler.

Here are some features of the Crawler Way:

Great Links & Info about Aspects of Saturn / Apollo

Here are some Youtube Videos

After the Saturn/Apollo era some of Kennedy Spaceport's system fell into disuse. No need for access to 4 bays of the VAB, no use for the Launch Platforms for Saturn/Apollo, etc. Then, decades later their is an "oops" of maybe we want to use all that stuff that was designed -- and they have to literally dig it up.

Apollo Era Computers & Simulators

The Saturn Apollo system was based on digital computers. Everywhere in the system. It was the first real world application of a unified computing network on a grand scale. Almost all computers used in the program were the first interrupt priority units available. The software installed used automated load shedding techniques to prioritize important tasks:

Remember the 1202 Alarm that occurred repeatedly as The Eagle -- Apollo 11's LM was descending toward the moon landing with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin aboard? That was the AGC saying it was load shedding stuff it couldn't deal with so it gave priority to the flight control systems on the LM instead!


The AGC found its way into the forefront of non-space fly-by-wire systems.

  1. One use was in NASA's Digital Fly-By-Wire F8 Crusader test platform, which ultimately lead to the modern fly-by-wire techniques used in the Space Shuttle and other US Assets
  2. An unexpected use was in the DSRV (Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle) as a underwater fly-by-wire controller. The contractor on that submarine was not the usual naval contractor, but rather aeronautical -- Lockheed-Martin!

Apollo Computers Today

Saturn V Components

F-1 Engine

J-2 Engine

The Augmented Spark Igniter is the ignition element in the J-2 engine.

The J-2X is the "Son of J-2" which is being used for future space use, instead of the SSME, which is apparently some kind of dead end.

SPS -- Service Propulsion System -- Service Module Engine

Lunar Module Descent Engine

Lunar Module Ascent Engine


With the early termination of the Saturn V / Apollo program, NASA was left with a few boosters and spacecraft. Most of the items were given to museums or scrapped. A few survived to serve a useful life in space, just not on the moon.

The last Saturn V to launch wasn't a moon rocket. It sent up the first long term manned mission in orbit -- Skylab. Skylab itself was a converted SIV-B Saturn V third stage. It was gutted of its propulsion elements and retrofitted as a flying laboratory. It included a number of features that were for a combination of experiments -- an observatory, facilities for maintaining health of astronauts in zero G (read microgravity), long term crew arrangements (eating, sleeping, moving around, everything). It literally pioneered things that happened later in the Shuttle and ISS programs.

It wasn't perfect but it worked. On its ascent, something went wrong. A micrometeoroid shield tore off unexpectedly during ascent. This had disastrous consequences: As a result one of the main solar panels departed the spacecraft. The other main solar panel was unable to extend completely once in orbit. This caused two big problem -- overheating beyond design limitations by a lack of cooling (the micro-meteorite shield also acted as a sun shade), as well as a lack of power.

The only reason that Skylab just barely worked was the tiny amount of power provided by the observatory ("windmill") solar panels.
NASA was worried that the project would be dead within hours. Over a period of two? weeks, NASA studied the problem and created some fixes. One was a "umbrella" or "parasol" that was to be attached to Skylab to increase it's shielding from the solar radiation. The other was a procedure to deploy manually the remaining "stuck" solar panel.

The Apollo crew went up those two weeks later and was able to install both "patches" to the Skylab. They worked well -- the demise of Skylab was not due to the launch related damage, but to problems with the Space Shuttle Program. They never got it up in time to boost the Skylab into a higher orbit.

The reason Skylab needed to be in a higher orbit wasn't a design error. What happened is that solar activity increased in an unforecast manner after the station had been in orbit a while. This increased the size of the earths atmosphere up to the altitude of Skylab. The atmosphere put a drag on Skylab and started slowing it in orbit, which means that it is descending -- which it was never designed to have to fix. Oops.

Due to the harsh environment of its first few weeks in space Astronauts had to replace some of Skylab's components. In particular I remember that a six pack of attitude gyros had to be replaced. IIRC, those are for the stable platform used for attitude control in Skylab; I think the bearings went bad from the heat. The identical replacements survived until Skylab broke up on re-entry -- having guided the lab in its fiery re-entry descent to miss major areas of population.

All told Apollo Astronauts made 3 trips to Skylab, each having longer and longer duration. Long term living in space, affects of extended zero G on astronauts, scientific experiments, telescopic observations, development of food stuffs, all sorts of things were done.

I'll have to find some good references for that, it's been a while since Skylab.

Space Shuttle

STS -- Space Transportation System aka The Space Shuttle.

Yes it worked. It was a 30 year (1981 - 2011) project, with 135 missions, more than any other NASA manned project. More than all the other manned projects combined. It put more people in orbit, it carried out more experiments, it launched missions, it fixed stuff in orbit, it did it all. It was useful and served a purpose, and in that it was good. As of 2012, the Space Shuttles are gone and I think that the loss of the utility they provided is unfortunate.

Earlier I said some harsh words about the Space Shuttle, and I mean them. In the kindest way possible. There are critics of the Shuttle program that called it America's Space Truck. That is a pretty good summary of the utility of the program. It, for better or worse, made space an everyday activity. Soon people were not even paying attention to Shuttle flights.

The problem is that it worked and it was good enough. So, no real research was done, no driving force was behind the project, nothing. No new shuttles were built to replace those lost. The space shuttle program stymied NASA into supporting just it, instead of moving forward with manned missions and orbital presence.

Overused System

One of the big problems with the Space Shuttle program is that they used the shuttles up boosting stuff into orbit. With the limited shuttle payload, that meant a lot of flights to put parts of things into orbit. Heck, they even used the shuttle to take supplies up to the ISS (International Space Station). The thing is, that is a job better done by a big booster, such as a Saturn V. The problem was -- discarding Saturn / Apollo and switching the space program to the Space shuttle eliminated all the capabilities we had for putting large boosters on the pad and getting payloads into orbit. The shuttle program dead-ended our space program by putting all our eggs in one basket, instead of it being just a tool in a toolbox. Instead it was the only tool.

No Crew Protection

xXXX move LES info to Saturn / Apollo and just concentrate on shuttle lack here.

I think another big problem with the Shuttle was hubris. After the success of the Apollo program -- no losses in flight, NASA stopped worrying about failure, they thought they could design it out. This, IMO, led to a giant design flaw in the STS system. No Escape Mechanism.

If anything went wrong with a Saturn launch, from on the pad to well into space, the Launch Escape System (LES) would pull the Apollo command module away from the millions of pounds of fuel and oxidizer stored in a malfunctioning booster. The LES system could be manually triggered, but there was also an automatic mode that was armed for quite a bit of flight. The automatic mode was there because there were problems that could go wrong so fast that you couldn't delay activating it to get the astronauts to safety. Was it tested -- hell yeah it was, just like the rest of Saturn / Apollo. In fact, it was tested for real on at least one occasion! The Little Joe test launcher malfunctioned during a launch, the LES detected the out-of-control booster, and did its thing. This ended up with a CM safely landed on the ground nearby.

Look at the shuttle -- your vehicle is sitting next to, not on top of a giant propellant tank. Your vehicle is sitting next to solid rockets -- giant explosives just waiting to cause problems -- that can't be shutdown like a liquid fuel engine can. No abort or escape mechanism to get the astronauts away from a malfunctioning booster. Not on the pad, and not in flight. No Crew Protection. If anything goes wrong -- dead astronauts.

Exposed Thermal Protection System

Another source of problems in the shuttle program was it's exposed re-entry protection. In an Saturn / Apollo flight, the CM's heat shield is protected through all of the flight until the SM is jettisoned before re-entry. This keeps the heat shield protected from all sorts of problems. The Apollo CM heat shield was a robust structure in itself! The Thermal Tiles used on the Shuttle had a couple of problems. One was that they were fragile and could be easily broken. Oops -- and they are exposed in all mode of flight. Another problem is thta they were glued on -- which means that something goes wrong with your adhesive, a tlle could be lost in flight -- creating a chink to the sun-like temperatures developed on re-entry.

No Lifeboat

After the Columbia Disaster, certainly NASA made sure that a in-orbit Patch kit was available to replace some broken tiles. That's like fixing the door to the chicken coop after the fox got in. :( While a great idea which should have been done at the beginning of the program instead of 107 flights in .... it was still a flawed solution. There was no mechanism for getting people out of orbit if a large number of tiles or other vehicle structure was compromised. In other words no lifeboat. We had a great lifeboat that could take a shuttle crew out of orbit -- the Apollo Command/Service module. Something goes wrong, boost one up to orbit, load people in, bring them back to earth. Heck -- you could put one into orbit and leave it there as an emergency tool -- always available if something goes wrong. Again -- because of the all-or-nothing nature of the shuttle program -- we lost the capability to launch anything else.

I can mention that we didn't bother to do enough to save Skylab due to delays in the Shuttle program. The thing is, that Skylab stayed operational all the way to its re-entry and disintegration in the atmosphere. In orbit it would have made a great in-orbit lifeboat for a shuttle crew to dock with and live in until they could be rescued. Add in a in-orbit ground-controlled Apollo CM/SM that could be used to rescue a crew from a non-manueverable shuttle, and you have a total space rescue system ... made out of existing reliable parts. Heck, leave it docked to skylab so it can take advantage of power and orbital control that the lab provides! Again ... the single-track shuttle program managed to make a system that didn't allow anything else to go on, and killed all use of prior flight technology.

Solid Rocket Booster

I could mention the design failure of using Solid Fuel Engines as a non-emergency component of a man-rated vehicle! Before, the uses of Solid Rockets in manned flight had been limited to emergency situations where the characteristics, long-term storage, reliability, risk, high thrust and instant-on capability of a solid rocket were decided to be less of a risk than the alternative. Things like ullage motors, retro-rockets, separation devices, launch escape system, etc. With the Shuttle program ... those giant SRBs were a failure waiting to happen --- because if something goes wrong, they can't be shutdown. What could go wrong -- how about one of them fails to light on the launch pad? One has problems during flight that cause a thrust loss? One lights off unexpectedly on the pad because it is fuelled and ready to go all the time?

Except for one flight where it killed everybody, they worked. The only problem is that they indeed killed everybody on that flight. That may not be the SRBs problem -- the lack of an Escape System guaranteed dead astronauts. The simplicity and re-usability of the SRBs may have made everything else worthwhile ... but the loss of a crew cancels out that bonus. It could be a bias I have -- I don't want astronauts sitting on top of a giant roman candle -- I want them sitting on top of a Launch Vehicle! Sure, they reduced the handling costs by not having to fuel the boosters on the pad. Sure, they had a lot of thrust to help get the huge mass of the reusable shuttle off of the pad. Sure, and as soon as the shuttle program ended -- we're going back to liquid fuel boosters. With escape systems. Enough Said.

Thrown Away

The other big beef I have about the Space Shuttle program is that it was thrown away at the end. We didn't build new shuttles. We didn't make the program better. We didn't save shuttles and components to put into space in case we need to do in-orbit work now, not years in the future. We didn't keep the newest shuttles around for interim use with a reduced flight schedule. We didn't use the VAB and MLs as intended -- to have multiple spacecraft available. Sure, we could go next-generation ... and still keep the Space Truck around.

It's the same disaster that befell our space program when direction was changed from Saturn / Apollo to the Space Shuttle. Can't we ever learn that discarding stuff that might work is a stupid way to go? It's like all the Shuttle disasters -- it was based upon budget instead of vision.

Ohh, Il have to write more about it later, I always get frustrated talking about the damn project because it worked, and yet it stopped the space program.

Space Shuttles

Yes, Endeavour (OV-105) was built from spares. Challenger was rebuilt built from a static test item (for vibration / flexing) tests into an active shuttle (OV-99). It's destruction had nothing to do with it's previous life on a stress platform, and everything to do with the SRB failure.

Beyond Apollo


Gemini filled a 4 year gap between Mercury and Apollo. It pioneered docking, rendezvous, coordinated launches, combined spacecraft operations, space walking, work in space, EVA techniques, extended duration flight & how it affects both equipment and astroanauts, and probably even more things than I'm aware of.

Gemini was heavy -- about 4x the weight of Mercury -- and needed a heavier booster than the Redstone or Atlas boosters used by Mercury for sub-orbital and orbital flights. The Titan II ICBM missile was converted into a booster for manned space flight.

Systems in Gemini were more complex than those of Mercury. Fuel cells instead of batteries. Fuel tanks for extended orbital manuevering. Life support supplies for extended flights. THe capsule itself was larger than Mercury, but not large enought to hold all those systems. The extra systems were housed in the storage bays after of the capsule, which was jetisonned for re-entry. The retro-rockets to de-orbit the Capsule were strapped onto the base of the heat-shield, in a similar configuration to Mercury.

Gemini was also the first US spacecraft to have a fly-by-wire computer system on board. The capsule, its pilot arrangements and other systems had major input from Gus Grissom, a fighter pilot by trade. The capsule was often refered to the GusMobile, and was said to be The Ferrari, or Sportscar of all the US spacecraft -- most likely to flying a fighter. Agile and Responsive.

One big lesson that Gemini learned, in combination with docked operations with the Agena Target Vehicle, was that docked spacecraft behaved in a manner completely different from an stand-alone spacecraft. Essentially, two spacecraft docked together become a 3rd unique spacecraft that has properties different from the two original craft. Computers became a big help here -- you could tell the computer to fly the docked spacecraft as one. This same problem would later help out Saturn / Apollo, which manuevered in many different configurations -- from an entire Saturn/Apollo stack at Launch, to just the Command Module at the end of flight.

One big difficulty encountered on Apollo 13's self-rescue with the LEM, was that the LEM's flight computer was not programmed at all to act as a controller for a combined SM/CM/LEM stack of spacecraft. That required a lot of hands-on flying when the LEM was making orientation and orbit burns -- there was no model of a combined spacecraft to be controlled.

Computers in Spaceflight

Computers have been an integral part of space flight.

People today think of computers as the desktop jobs running common operating systems (Windows, MacOS, Linux) and a web browser. Digital computers running programs.

The funny thing is that computers in spaceflight have "only recently" (on the geologic scale) been of digital origin and programability. Missiles, from the inception of the various ware programs, such as Germany's V-1 and V-2 programs, have had computers. They aren't digital -- but analog. They rely on gyroscopes, pressures, timers and a host of other things to make things work. While it may sound downright archaic, analog computers can perform some of the most complex and safety critical functions reliably in an environment that digital computers couldn't survive in. One of the greatest examples of analog computing that I am aware of is the gun director system in the United States Iowa class Battleships. You tell it to track a target and keep a gun tube/turret aimed on it, and it does so -- regardless of so many outside factors -- such as roll of the ship, heading changes, ... That's right -- WWII era analog fire control computers on warships often outstrip more modern fire control computer systems. And just a reminder; the Iowa class BB's computers worked in 1945 ... and they were working again just fine in 2000. I can think of no high reliability digital computer that has such longevity and reliability. ... Except for the Skylab computer system which was brought back to life after years of inactivity to control and re-orient Skylab to maximize its life in orbit ... and eventually to control its re-entry when it was no longer possible to save it.

Enough of Battleships, and back to Space. Since Missiles were the start of the space program (in the beginning space rocket started life as a missile system), they came along with the analog control systems used. They were well known and reliable. Both critical factors for delivering nuclear warheads and for man rated flights.

One problem with the analog systems is that they were not programmable. They were great for ballistic trajectories and controlled guidance. But when you started to execute random functions, have to adapt to new equipment and situations, have to manuever a variable mass spacecraft in orbit... they no longer had all the functionality needed for space travel.

Fortunately, the age of the Digital Computer had arrived about the same time as manned space flight, and the space program adapted to computers like a hen to her eggs. NASA, of course, had used ground computers for years for computations. Then they expanded computers into operations and tracking. The advent of computer controlled spacecraft was yet to come.

At first, the use of computers was quite limited in actual space flight. The Gemini program was the first to use a real computer for space craft manuevering. It was archaic by modern standards, but it let pilots, astronauts, manuever spacecraft around each other with ease and fly them in precision formation flight just a few feet from each other. This, in an environment where a collision would almost guarantee the loss of one or both spacecraft. I'm spacing at the moment on the phrase The astronauts used to describe the Gemini computer, -- I'll have to look it up later! It was superlative.

While the Gemini capsule was the first spacecraft to be computerized, it took longer for the rest of the booster and entire spacecraft to be computerized. What really caused computerization of the entire spacecraft was economics. Really it came down to economics. The problem was that the spacecraft had become complex. No longer was it possible for individuals to examine parts of the spacecraft, or to monitor the systems in person. Much less to prepare for the complex sequencing across spacecraft and launch system components. Even more -- with all the testing needed to verify a spacecraft worked before you sent it to launch -- it still needed to be verified as it was built.

Hence, the introduction of computers controlling and monitoring the entire spacecraft. Instrumentation on the spacecraft which talked to the spacecraft computers and also to the ground based systems. Computers that talked to other computers ... that talked to other computers. Yup, that is pretty much the start of computing as we know it.

From the technology point of view, the space program bootstrapped the development of compact packaging of digital computers. The high-vibration and high-reliability of the Spacecraft environment could easily lead to failures of component based systems. They just were not reliable enough for the environment. This prompted the development of IC technology to build man rated computer systems for the Saturn Booster and Apollo Spacecraft.

IC technology wasn't the only thing that evolved. Reduction of size in computers in general was important. Both in physical size and in software size. New techniques in miniaturizing computer systems evolved to allow great computer power to be put in a small environment. People also worked a lot to shoe horn an amazing amount of software into a small computer system that had high functionality and reliability.

Memory developments -- core rope memory, plated wire memory, semiconductor memory, were all fostered by the need of the space program to have highly reliable systems that took up little space and weight. Core memory you ask? Yes, space environments like core memory -- it keeps its contents through power cycling, and it isn't disturbed by radiation events. Oh yeah -- and it requires NO POWER to hold its contents, unlike semiconductor memory -- a big thing on a spacecraft with minimal power and cooling resources!

Yet another development in computers due to space was that of Software Engineering. Prior to man rated space flight, computer programs were huge monolithic things. Changing a few lines of code somewhere would often break a system and demand months of debugging to get it working again. This is not acceptable for man rated space flight! Both from a provability standpoint, and from an economic standpoint. If a minor change takes months to prove that the system might be correct, how the heck to you actually make useful changes to a system? The answer is to make small, reusable, provable software components. The sad thing is that even today -- people forget about crucial things like that in critical systems.

Fault Tolerant computing -- both in hardware and in software -- was another vital contribution of the space program. The Apollo Programs used TMR -- Triple Modular Redundancy computing in critical systems to guarantee availability. This is where three systems provided the answers and compared them to see what was correct by a voting process. This was done by hardware in the Apollo era, and later by software in the Skylab and Shuttle era. The development of long lifetime deep space probes led to the discovery of ionic interference to computing systems --- basically high energy atoms screwing up silicon computing devices. This led to the development of space rated CPUs and components, such as the RCA 1802 and space rated 29xx series components. Yet another was the development of self healing computer systems with redundant components that could detect and replace failed modules within the CPUs. Checkout the STAR program for info on that -- it never flew as designed, but its ideas propagated through aspects of the space program.

Just to review the major computers in a Saturn V / Apollo.

  1. AGC -- Apollo Guidance Computer
  2. LVDC -- Launch Vehicle Digital Computer
  3. ML RCA110A -- The direct-connected computer in the ML
  4. LCC RCA110A -- The network connect computer to the ML Computer

Of course there are more, but basically the computers and the systems for the computers were built into the entire spacecraft as it was built. Those systems were used for manufacturing testing and verification before the spacecraft components even left the plant. When the spacecraft was stacked on the ML in the VAB, they were talking to the ML computer and the LCC computer from the beginning. A Saturn V was "born" with its computer heart beating and controlling itself long before the stack ever left the VAB.

That legacy of Apollo continues through NASA to this day.

That -- that's computer integration!

Some other Space Related Computer Info

This stuff isn't from the usual places, but it's got some informational quality to it. Even the article dissing the AGC might give you an insight into how its special Core Rope Memory works, which I have to sit down and do myself.

Navigation & Propulsion

Great Quotes

Virtual Reality Space Simulation

ProjectApollo and MSC (Meadville Space Center) have a virtual reality model of the Apollo Program, Saturn Launch Vehicle, LEM, Launch Complex 39, and virtual working replicas of the spacecraft computers of Saturn V / Apollo. This includes simulations of entire existing Apollo flights, which you can "view" as they happened. The simulators also let you fly other spacecraft.

I believe most of this is built on top of the Orbiter space flight simulator. What the MSC Project Apollo does is create modules for orbiter which simulate the individual components of the Saturn V / Apollo spacecraft. This goes from models of the spacecraft, textures, working panels and displays, and functioning simulations of the computers. It is all really quite cool!

It runs on Windows, but that just means you need to run a Windows VM on another platform to hopefully make it work on Unix and MacOS!

Great References & Articles

News & Info about / around the Space Program

Books about Saturn / Apollo

There are a number of fine books about the space program available. Some are output by NASA directly, and are often freely available from the NASA web site, as well as purchasable as bound editions from booksellers. These books have great factual and "official" information about the program and the hardware and the individuals involved.

There are many non-NASA books too. These vary quite a bit in content. They often take the viewpoint of a individual, a contractor, or a system, and follow that viewpoint through the program. These books can be quite interesting to understand some of the background and politics involved in the space program. That's because they are written by sources outside the government. At the same time, the information presented here can be less than accurate, to the point of just being plain wrong.

I've found it works best to just be well read about the space program. Almost any of the sources can fill in holes in your knowledge, and also prove or disprove comments and statements made by authors on subjects were they just might be wrong.

Reading fictional material that uses the space program as the background, it is quite important to have a solid background in NASA, the Space Race, and the Space Program. Many fictional authors do not have the wealth of knowledge that is available, and will often take their viewpoint on the space race, the entire space program, and present it incorrectly. If that is your only source of information, you will not know the things that really did happen, the safety, or lack of it, and all the other things that are true.

One thing that is not apparent to the hardware-minded at first (as it was not to me) is the enormous drive of politics, bad politicians, artificial scandals, intelligence agencies, things that were but not ever made public, and a wealth of other information the provides a wide-scoped background to the things that happened in the era of The Space Race. I found it puts a different slant on many things that happened. Some of them totally shameful, and others that are just wierd.

XXXX This list is sorta short -- I need to dig through my library and summarize more books, not just the ones by my computer at the moment!

Films about Apollo & the Space Program

While The Right Stuff isn't a documentary and doesn't have the astronauts in it ... it also tells an important part of the story enough to be included as "about the space program".

October Sky is the movie adaptation of the book Rocket Boys. It's about high school students who were inspired by the launch of Sputnik to start their own rocketry program. The author -- one of the Rocket Boys -- eventually made it to be a NASA Engineer in the Space Shuttle program.

Fictional Films Involving The Space Program

The Dish is supposed to be historical in nature about actual events.

Mouse on the Moon is a gentle jibe at the space race.

Space Cowboys, while fictional, has echoes of real-life things and characters in the space program and its precursors through it. The story isn't true, but it looks like the author (or screenwriters) did a lot of reading on the space program to put that kind of detail in. I didn't realize it until I was well-read in the space program.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon has some great closeup footage of the MLP and the top deck of the Launch Pad Hard Stand, including the special roadway segments the crawler rides on. Yeah -- it was built in 1965 -- and it still looks good!

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Last Modified: Tue Jul 15 20:28:08 CDT 2014
Bolo (Josef Burger) <>