Apollo 11: Reflecting on how far we’ve come technologically

Consumer Reports News: July 20, 2009 11:29 AM

Google Moon gives users a chance to view the Sea of Tranquility with-out the week long trip. [Image: Screengrab]

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 space landing, an event that achieved the simplest of impossible missions: perform a manned lunar landing. And among the wonders of the day, and the entire mission—when viewed from a 2009 perspective—is the relative modesty of the tools and technology that NASA had to work with, specifically, the main computer carried aboard the Apollo 11 capsule.

According to FlightGlobal (“Serious About Aviation”), the Apollo Guidance Computer, or AGC, had just 64KB of memory and only 0.043 MHz of processing power. That was enormous at the time, of course, but compare those specs with those of modern netbooks—the pint-sized laptops that are considered underpowered by today’s computing standards.

The typical netbook has over 100 GB of capacity – more than a million times that of the computer on which NASA staked an historic mission and the lives of three astronauts. And a netbook’s 1.6GHz processor is several thousand times faster than that of 1969’s AGC.

On the ground, the mission depended on a host of mainframe computers, including a number of IBM System 360/Model 75. Each of these IBMs occupied an entire large room (as shown in the photos) and cost at least $2 million.

But as archaic as the Apollo programs hardware is now, it was monumental and groundbreaking for its time. For instance, the FlightGlobal piece says “the modern integrated circuit, or the silicon chip that is used in computers today, stems from the creation of the [AGC’s] operating system.” And, puny as it was, that IBM software—used to monitor the environment outside the capsule and the astronauts’ biomedical data—was described by the company, at the time, as the most sophisticated ever written.

Now, some forty years later, we can use our personal computers to access digitally remastered footage of the launch and landing. We can even access NASA satellite images at Google Moon (which works in a similar fashion to Google Earth—only for the Moon), where there are tags up for not only Apollo 11, but for the other Apollo missions as well (just don’t waste time looking for the Apollo 13 landing site). If you zoom in, the landing sites are broken down to show points of interest—like where Neal Armstrong took his first steps after the Eagle had landed—and some tags include pictures from that first, 250-meter stroll around the landing area.

Every now and again, we have a moment that gives us perspective on where we have been and—perhaps more importantly—where we're going. On this, the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, share your memories of seeing the landing, including anything you remember about the technology involved, or simply share your reflections on other projects—space-related or not—that provide you with a perspective on the pace of technological change.—Will Dilella and Paul Reynolds.

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