NASA landed the first humans on the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969. The historic Moon landing consisted of astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. Commander Armstrong and Lunar Module Pilot Aldrin flew down to the Moon while Command Module Pilot stayed in lunar orbit. The incredible achievement was televised around the world, with an estimated 650 million people tuning in live on their TVs.
And one of the more astounding aspects of the mission was the seeming simplicity of the technology used to get man to the Moon.
According to Oliver Gassman, a professor of Technology Management at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland, the mobile phone in your pocket is millions of times more powerful than Apollo 11’s Lunar Lander.
Because of this, in his opinion, the success of Apollo 11 is a monumental testament to the ingenuity and passion of the 400,000 people who made the Moon landing a reality.
Professor Gassman told Express.co.uk: “Today, actually, every average smartphone has a higher storage capacity of many millions and processing capacity of several billions of the original Apollo mission computer.
NASA Moon landing: Apollo 11 landed on the Moon with very little computing power available
“Now, if we just think at the time what was needed, I think it was an extreme courage.
“And trying to look a little bit into the future, I think it’s tough to look even more than 10 to 15 years ahead because we can’t forecast the technological development for certain perspectives.
“But if you think about quantum computing, I think we can have a certain perspective but we can hardly forecast what we can do with the computing power.”
Professor Gassman said one of the main drivers behind the “information technology” of the Apollo mission was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The world-famous institution designed the original Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) and was instrumental in developing guidance and control systems.
The Software Engineering Division of MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory at the time was lead by mathematician and software engineer Margaret Hamilton.
Just before Apollo 11’s crew landed on the Moon, a failure of the onboard computer warned Commander Armstrong and pilot Aldrin of an error with the navigation systems.
The Eagle Lunar Lander’s computers were simply being fed too much radar and landing information to compute.
With the power of today’s technology, such errors seem highly unlikely, but a clever failsafe in the computer systems, coded in by Ms Hamilton, made the mission a success.
Every average smartphone has a higher storage capacity of many millions
When presented with the option of landing or aborting, Commander Armstrong’s decision to carry on with the mission helped the computer prioritise which information to process.
In the end, the astronaut hand glided the Eagle lander to a safe landing spot after being thrown off-course towards a boulder-strewn field.
The Lunar Lander landed on the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility with less than 30 seconds of fuel left.
NASA Moon landing: Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin
NASA Moon landing: The three astronauts were hailed national heroes
Professor Gassman said: “If we look to the computers at the time, that was still amazing to me if you think about it because there was no signal reception from the dark side of the Moon.
“And at the time of the landing a huge computer was needed and if you talk about the huge computer, we talk about the storage capacity of 74 kilobytes and the processing capacity of four kilobytes.”
NASA’s astronauts spent nearly 24 hours on the surface of the Moon, two-and-a-half of which were spent outside of the Lunar Module.
All three astronauts safely returned to Earth on July 24, 1969, and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.
NASA Moon landing: Margaret Hamilton built the software for Apollo 11’s computers
NASA Moon landing: Apollo 11 landed on the Moon on July 20, 1969
Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Richard Nixon upon their return – Ms Hamilton was awarded the same medal by Barack Obama in 2016.
Describing her contribution to the Moon landing, President Obama said: “Three minutes before Armstrong and Aldrin touched down on the Moon, Apollo 11’s Lunar Lander alarms triggered.
“Red and yellow lights across the board. Our astronauts did not have much time but thankfully, they had Margaret Hamilton – a young MIT scientist and a working mum in the 60s.
“Margaret lead the team that created the onboard flight software that allowed the Eagle to land safely and keep in mind that at this time software engineering wasn’t even a field yet.”
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