Tales from IT History: The Apollo Missions and Tech Innovation

Did you ever hear that Tang, the orange powdered drink, was developed for astronauts? That story is a myth, but it's true that the use of technologies such as micro-electromechanical systems, supercomputers, microcomputers and microprocessors were accelerated by work done at NASA.

The Apollo missions included the never-flown Apollo 1 mission in 1967; Apollo 11, the first manned mission to land on the Moon; and Apollo 13, which was successfully launched but never landed on the moon due to damage to the spacecraft's electrical system. Apollo 17 was the last to land men on the moon in 1972, but these missions had a lasting and critical impact on technology that is still with us today.

The engineering required to leave Earth and move to another heavenly body required the development of new technologies that before hadn't even been thought of. "It has yet to be rivaled," said Daniel Lockney, the editor NASA's annual publication was quoted saying.

The Integrated Circuit

Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments demonstrated the first working integrated circuit in 1958. It was originally designed for the U.S. Department of Defense and NASA. Robert Noyce, co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and then Intel Corp. came up with his own idea of an integrated circuit half a year later that solved many practical problems that Kilby's had not. Noyce's chip was made of silicon, whereas Kilby's design chip was made of germanium.

Within a decade, the Apollo program became one of the first major users of the integrated circuit.  The Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC), which guided the Command Module (CM) and Lunar Module (LM) spacecraft of the Apollo program, was one of the first integrated-circuit based computers.  Because sending a large madd into space cost a great deal of money, NASA saw that it could use the integrated circuit to cut down weight and power consumption.  All of the components could be put on a small chip rather than a large board with individual transistors and other circuit components. 

Early applications of the integrated circuit were tied to the Apollo missions. Because sending a large mass into space cost a great deal of money, NASA needed to cut down on weight and power consumption. Once the integrated circuit was developed, NASA was able to achieve this goal since all of the components could be put on a small chip rather than a large board with individual transistors and other circuit components. The Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC), which guided the Command Module (CM) and Lunar Module (LM) spacecraft of the Apollo program, was one of the first integrated-circuit based computers.

Other interesting technologies developed in the name of space exploration include:

  • Software designed to manage a complex series of systems onboard the capsules is an ancestor to software that today is used in retail credit card swipe devices.
  • Race car drivers and firefighters today use liquid-cooled garments based on devices created for Apollo astronauts.
  • Freeze-dried foods developed for astronauts to eat in space are used today in military field rations.


Sources:NASA’s Apollo technology has changed history,” By Sharon Gaudin, Computerworld, July 20, 2009; and Wikipedia, Sept. 13, 2010, www.wikipedia.com