The technology astronauts used to land on the Moon

The technology behind the moon landing

The moon landing was pretty much the most important feat of the last century. After years into the Space Race, the technological war that marked the Cold War and brought us some nice tech such as the internet and the GPS, the US managed to land the lunar module on the moon and allow two humans to step on it for the first time in our history, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, as part of the Apollo 11 mission.

That feat was peak rocket science, and so it was pretty complicated even for today’s standards. That doesn’t mean, though, that all the tech they used aged well. Indeed, we have progressed way beyond it in such a short time, and now even private companies have got their hands on it – something that would seem unthinkable at the time.

Let’s take a look into how things were.

Engineering

The Apollo program itself was a collection of amazing engineering feats. Being able to exit the atmosphere and follow the exact trajectory to reach the moon, land on it and come back to Earth, all in the 60s, when computers and supercomputers weren’t nearly as powerful as they are today, is simply incredible.

Even more if you consider the such extreme conditions they were subject to: extremely powerful and hot ascension engines (just remember the Challenger incident), the vacuum of space, the velocities they had to get to reach the moon and return from it, and the temperatures and speed they got during reentry.

And, well, let’s just say engineering isn’t a totally exact science: materials and machine parts can have imperfections and sometimes things can just go unpredictably wrong. The technical aspects had a good bit of help from just plain old luck. You may also know: Crime Syndicates

Computing

Surprisingly, the average smartphone today has much more processing power than the Apollo Guidance Computer. More surprisingly yet, the CPU used by the Apollo 11 wasn’t even the most powerful one of the time, considering comparable CPUs were used for the Apple II and Commodore PET a few years afterwards, although it was the first one made of silicon integrated circuit. And it had only about 80 kilobytes of memory, most of it read-only.

Of course, as the AGC didn’t have to keep the Facebook app running in the background, it didn’t have too much problem with processing power. 

Moreover, the threat of cosmic rays impacting the Apollo’s navigation programs was very real. Even though the computer’s memory was heavily shielded from them, radiation in space is still much greater than on Earth, so they had to take every possible precaution. Because of that, many parts of the code consisted of redundant subroutines and error-checking processes to ensure things went smoothly.

Still, do not be surprised if you hear about obsolete processors being used in modern military technology: for critical missions, mistakes are unacceptable, so you need to ensure that you know everything about the technology you are using – especially the hardware bugs.

Navigation

Even though the programming and processing power did their best to make sure everything went smoothly, it wasn’t enough. Nearing the moon, it reached its limits, and could not help them land on the moon properly anymore. So they turned off autopilot, and Neil Armstrong took the helm.

Armstrong is an experienced naval aviator – meaning he flew planes for the US Navy. He fought in the Korean war and flew in and out of an aircraft carrier. Carriers are one of the hardest things to land on, as their runways are much smaller than usual land runways, and you have to land just right to catch the landing cable that will prevent you from rolling straight to the other side of the runway and into the water.

So he had a lot of experience with difficult landings.

And in the end, it was experience and skill that allowed Armstrong to correct the landing trajectory and safely land the lunar module on the lunar soil. Sometimes those are the best technologies that one can have on their side.

USA Space Policy

New Cold War, New Space Race

If you have been half following the news the last few years, you may have noticed the US’s growing attrition with China. What used to be a very profitable outsourcing partnership quickly developed into one of the US’s greatest fears, and Trump’s America First policy set out to try to stop it in its tracks, unsuccessfully.

What we didn’t really expect, however, was that this economic war would also develop into a space race, much like the Cold War’s. It is logical, though: China is growing into a technological power, as Huawei’s ever expanding 5G technology clearly shows, and the country is also aiming for the stars.

Paradigm shift

Of course, although this space race is similar to the last one, in that it is a technological race, it also has many very prominent differences.

The main one is that the government agencies aren’t the main players here. NASA is not at the forefront of technological development anymore but has been delegated to mostly astronomical research. That is, developing and launching probes and satellites and sending manned research missions into the ISS.

The main players in the US are now private companies, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, which receive a lot of private and public investment and have been very successful.

In China, however, the government is still on the forefront, mainly with the China National Space Agency (CNSA) and China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO), in partnership with many universities.

Although compared to the US, the Chinese space program is still in its infancy, the US has greater ambitions.

Command and conquer

During his term, Trump slowly increased his focus on space. While he initially just followed Obama’s last policies, at the end of his term he had created the United States Space Force increased focus on space research, and set the goals of creating a base of operations on the Moon, with a “permanent human presence”, and doing a manned mission to Mars.

While current international laws prohibit nations from considering celestial bodies or parts of them as their territory, this is something that may change by force, should the US actually develop a military presence in space. At least for now, it aims to do missions with commercial ends, such as extraction of raw materials, especially on the moon. But, of course, as the technology develops and the attrition goes on, priorities may change.

Cooperation

Another interesting aspect of the current space policy, and which gives even more “cold war” vibes, is that the US is aiming to create partnerships with similar-minded nations in order to strengthen their space program. The National Space Policy document explicitly states that such partnerships will be done with “like-minded international and private partners”. The world is slowly dividing into a “US-bloc” and a “China-bloc”, and space is the most likely battlefield for now.

This seems to be one of the ways the US has found to try to curb a bit China’s economic expansion, such as the partnerships with African countries, the Belt and Road Initiative (which has partners in all continents other than North America) and Huawei’s 5G expansion. These partnerships can be a way into getting access to advanced aerospace technology, and many nations may be interested in it, especially developed nations.

A new era for the US and the world

More than a new space race, for the US this new space policy is basically a reinterpretation of the old Manifest Destiny: America is putting its own territorial and economic interests ahead of everything else, and that means being the first to go into the final frontier and reap all of the benefits which that brings.

Meanwhile, here on Earth, we will be reaping all the benefits of that technological leap in the next few decades, just like before. The first space race gave us the internet, the GPS, and many other technological marvels that we use every day. Now, in the era of Industry 4.0, who knows what will happen.