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The Legacy of Apollo 11

This past week I was fortunate to visit the Kennedy Space Center. Every two years, my wife and I make a pilgrimage to the facility in order to experience once again the thrill of space exploration. Much like the feeling I get from visiting Disney World, I leave KSC inspired. Motivated. Wondering why I never was an astronaut. And then I realize I was a lazy kid who liked to watch movies and play video games during my youth and would never have put in the time, energy, and effort required to be an astronaut.

Nevertheless, I AM inspired. And more so this year. On July 20th, 2019, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of mankind's first footsteps on the moon. And not coincidentally, my wife and I will also celebrate our 16th wedding anniversary on that date. And although it's debatable which event was more beneficial for humanity, all in all, it's a pretty great day.

Even more amazing is the technology that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins relied on to get them to the moon and back.

There were four computers that aided the mission to the moon. The Saturn Launch Vehicle Digital Computer (LVDC) that got the rocket from launch into orbit. Second, there was the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC). Two of these machines existed, one in the command module and one in the lunar lander. The AGC had 2K of RAM and 36K of ROM. As Popular Mechanics describes it:

While an iPhone does have more computing power than all of NASA had during the Apollo days, the AGC, designed at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, had one crucial advantage: it was crash-proof.​ while the iPhone beats the AGC in sheer power several thousand times over, there's still that chance of a freeze.

And that's the key here. We couldn't afford for the machines to malfunction. The moon is about 240,000 miles away from the earth. Any software glitch would be catastrophic. So NASA built the AGC to be crash proof. If you're interested in analyzing the code for the AGC, you can find it here. It's actually pretty interesting.

And that brings us to the last computer: the Abort Guidance System. This machine was never used on any mission as it controlled the abort and ascent of the lunar module should something happen during the descent to the moon's surface. And thankfully was never put into use.

As this year's anniversary rolls around this week, I would encourage you to watch some of the documentaries that describe the mission. I was lucky enough to watch Apollo 11: First Steps Edition at KSC. It was amazing.

As we contemplate a new mission to the moon by 2024 and onward to Mars thereafter, take a moment this July 20th to wonder at the bravery and heroism of the men and women who launched three men to the moon and returned them safely home. Wonder at the technology. Wonder at the science. Wonder at the courage. But most importantly, wonder at how it makes you feel. My hope is that on this 50th anniversary you are inspired to be better than you are today.

That's the true legacy of Apollo 11.

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