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Apollo engineers help aero/astro celebrate moon-landing anniversary

The 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing brought many of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory engineers who built the guidance and navigation systems for the spacecraft back to campus for a family-oriented party hosted by the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

The gathering at Walker Memorial featured a large-screen showing of video of that first moon landing, along with moon-boot footraces, an outdoor "moon walk" carnival tent, moon-grade food for the curious and barbecue for the more sedate.

Professor Emeritus Robert Seamans, who was deputy administrator at NASA during the 1960s and who was recently honored by aero/astro naming a new laboratory after him, was at the celebration. Another MIT-Apollo dignitary, Dr. Richard Battin, who was director of the Mission Development Group at the Instrumentation Lab (now Draper Lab), was there as well. Dr. Battin still teaches astrodynamics at MIT.

MIT's Instrumentation Lab was awarded the contract to build the navigation and guidance systems for the Apollo missions, and in 1960 a team of software and hardware engineers set to work on the decade-long project.

Those engineers, who refer to themselves as either "software guys" or "hardware guys," reminisced about the years they worked together in a way that made it obvious the group had bonded fast. Together they brought about what had been thought impossible -- navigating a ship carrying human beings to the moon for a landing, and then back. In fact, many of the engineers still work together today at local companies founded by members of the group.


The long hours, seemingly insurmountable obstacles and an implicit understanding that what they were doing had captivated the nation kept them motivated and made for lasting friendships.

"The whole world was with us," said Jim Miller, a "software guy" who was mission programmer of the Apollo 11 flight computer program. "It was the best thing you could imagine ever wanting to work on. It was really, really rare to find somebody who worked on it for any reason other than the good of the project," he said.

"They worked 12 hours a day for years. They loved what they did," said Daphne Henderson, the group's secretary who later married Dr. Miller.

"We had no PCs, no Xerox machine; we were still turning out memos with that blue stuff," said Jerry Glover (a hardware guy). "The software guys had access to a copy machine," Dr. Miller interjected.

"We were 28 years old and we didn't know any better, so we just said, 'we're gonna go do it,'" said Dr. Glover. And so they did. The first moon landing (Apollo 11) took place on July 20, 1969.

The engineers' task was to modify a navigation computer -- originally designed for a simpler unmanned trip to Mars -- into a system capable of safely landing on the moon and bringing three astronauts back to Earth. That task proved to be a very challenging project.

"In the beginning, [NASA] thought the same computer design would be enough for Apollo. That was very, very wrong," said Dr. Miller. The computer's memory capacity was unbelievably small for the ambitious trip to the moon: 2K of RAM and 36K of hard-wired memory. (By comparison, MIT's Information Systems currently recommends that desktop Macintosh computers today be equipped with at least 62K of RAM and a 2-gigabyte hard drive just to handle office software.)

"It was a calculator by today's standards," said Dr. Gilmore.

At the Instrumentation Lab, tension ran high over which functions were absolutely essential to the success of the mission.

"Early on, we were adding things," said Dr. Miller. "Later, the decisions were what to take out. NASA would come and we'd have these really emotional Black Friday meetings about what could be taken out and what had to be left in."

Their work didn't end with the design; they also acted as the computer help line during missions.

"MIT personnel actively supported each flight, 24 hours a day, by stationing expert engineers online linked to NASA's Manned Space Center in Houston," said Fred Martin, who was Dr. Battin's deputy director at the lab.

MIT has a long association with space travel, not limited to the Apollo missions. Institute alumni/ae have flown on more than one-third of NASA's space flights, including the most recent shuttle mission, with Catherine "Cady" Coleman (SB 1983) on board as a mission specialist (see story, page 1).

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin (ScD 1963) was on the Apollo 11 mission; he and Neil Armstrong thrilled the nation when they planted their feet on the moon's surface.

But the children at the aero/astro 30th anniversary party who raced in toy moon boots had no inkling as to the kick those first steps gave the world. It was one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind, and -- 30 years later -- lots of small hops for the kids.

A version of this article appeared in the September 11, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 44, Number 2).

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