For the millions of people tuning in from home on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” was the signal to erupt in riotous celebration. Apollo 11 had landed safely on the Moon. History had been made. But Hugh Blair-Smith was not ready to celebrate.
“What that moment meant to me was, ‘OK, we have done step one,” recalls the computer programmer.
“In engineering, a product is only branded successful once it has reached end-to-end completion”. That meant getting the astronauts back home safely.
Blair-Smith had been working on the Moon mission from the beginning, writing programs for early computers that would go on to form the foundations of the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC), the “brain” of the spacecraft that would eventually take Armstrong and his crew to the Moon.
The system, developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Instrumentation Laboratory, later renamed the Draper Laboratory, had been eight years in the making — with each piece of code painstakingly written out before the term “computer programmer” had even been adopted.
“Every program started by scratching out codes with pencil and paper,” Blair-Smith said.
“Later, you would physically tap that out using six- to seven-inch-long punch cards for an assembler to take and try to figure out what the value was.”
It was a laborious process, with every error felt personally and resolved individually. Up in space, it would only take one glitch for the computer to fail, putting lives in danger. As Blair-Smith admits, “Even brilliant people can only be brilliant 99.9 percent of the time.”
Four days later, the programming team watched the mission’s return to Earth with bated breath.
“We were all paying great attention,” he said. “It was only when the helicopter carrying the astronauts back to Cape Canaveral touched down on that platform that I thought, ‘OK, I can exhale’.”
Looking to future
Fifty years on, the Draper lab is one of five groups working with NASA to take humans back to the Moon by 2024, as part of the space agency’s Artemis exploration program.
The government-set targets are ambitious, with contracts for Draper, Boeing, Lockheed and others said to be worth $45.5 million each. That’s in addition to NASA’s annual budget of $21.5 billion — more than enough for taxpayers to question the real-world value of space research.
In recent weeks, US President Donald Trump has publicly questioned NASA’s priorities, tweeting on June 7, “For all of the money we are spending, Nasa should NOT be talking about going to the Moon. We did that 50 years ago”.
“If we were just going to repeat what we did 50 years ago I would agree,” said Seamus Tuohy, Draper’s lead across all current space exploration engineering, “but unlike the geopolitical drivers behind the Apollo missions, the new project comes with big commercial goals, including the beginnings of space tourism.” It could even protect the future of the human race.
“At some point the Earth becomes a finite resource,” Tuohy explained. “There are things to be done in space that may not be kind to the Earth — natural-resource extraction, refining, cracking — things that we require to maintain our what we do and what we would like to do in the future.”
It’s hoped that utilizing elements such as hydrogen, which is known to exist at the Moon’s poles, and helium-3, which is rare on Earth, will provide space engineers with sustainable fuel sources as well as alleviate the stress on Earth, perhaps one day replace all fossil-fuel energy.
“If you were able to extract helium-3 from the Moon, you could see a complete change in how we do energy on the Earth — using clean supply and a clean process to extract that for our power needs,” said Tuohy.
With these possibilities in mind, the “vision,” he says, is for travel to the Moon to one day be “no more than a commute — not the main event, but a routine, safe procedure” for everyday workers to mine the rock for resources — which will in turn help to further technology on Earth.
Collaboration is key
Thankfully, the processes being used by today’s researchers to get there are a lot faster and more sophisticated than they were in the days of pencils and punch cards.
But just as precision watchmakers were drafted in to help Apollo engineers limit dust contamination when fitting hardware, joining the incredible 400,000 people who contributed to the Moon program, contemporary space research depends on shared knowledge from different trades, universities and companies.
According to Daniel Lockney, technology transfer program executive for NASA, collaborative research efforts produce around 1,700 new inventions each year.
Many of these discoveries are made by chance, and Lockney says it is “impossible to predict” what future inventions will come out of today’s research. But one major shift since the Apollo missions is that “more and more of our inventions are jointly developed or developed directly by our partners”.
There is a growing body of research coming from private companies such as Virgin Galactic, billionaire businessman Richard Branson’s space travel spinoff, which is already selling tickets for a 90-minute space flight for $250,000.
Elon Musk’s rival company SpaceX has even more ambitious goals, aiming to beat NASA’s next mission by getting the world’s first space tourist to fly around the Moon in 2023.
Rather than see this competition as a threat, Lockney says NASA welcomes the interest.
“There are many parallels between NASA’S research and terrestrial needs in industry, medicine and safety,” he said.
“But now that there are space companies, it makes it easier for us to share even more technology and know-how.”
Reflecting on the improvements that Apollo mission research has made on Earth is more than enough reason to invest in further Moon missions, in the eyes of Blair-Smith.
“At the same time,” he muses, “I think it would be wicked cool for people to go to Mars and colonize it.”
That all of this is possible can be directly traced back to the initial AGC and the creation of computer microchips by Blair-Smith and his colleagues, but the veteran is modest about his contribution.
“My measure of success,” he said, “is knowing that I have created a system that is simple enough for people to take for granted.”
* Rachael Pells is a freelance journalist with several years' experience writing about higher education, science and research. This article was first published in iNews.