2019 will mark 50 years since a human being first stepping on the moon, and we have come a long way in half a century! To be specific, 20th July 2019 will be the momentous milestone, as NASA successfully sent Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to our planet’s only natural satellite just in time to make President Kennedy’s goal of getting man to the moon before the end of 1969.
It’s a feat we have yet to repeat, and yet, we’re constantly reminded how ‘slow’ the Apollo 11 computing power was in comparison to our smartphones. Apollo’s guidance system had 2k of memory, and just 1.024 MHz clock speed.
Yes, we’re all carrying around far more technology in our pockets than NASA’s combined computing in 1969 and yet we’re no closer to standing on the moon now than when we were playing Snake on our trusty Nokia 3310s back in the year 2000.
Never mind our smartphones — there’s more advanced technology in children’s toys nowadays than what could be found in the technology that put man on the moon.
In fact, the Telegraph pointed out that the must-have items on many children’s Christmas lists contain some of the most advanced technology available, from voice recognition to internet connectivity.
Plus, let’s face it, most kids are asking for iPhones nowadays anyway, which already makes their Christmas wishlists very expensive, for one, and several times capable of getting them to the moon. In theory, anyway.
But the archaic technology of 1969 didn’t come cheap either. According to ZME Science, the computer used at the Goddard Space Flight Center during the moon mission cost $3.5 million, making it slightly more expensive than the latest iPhone. Even an older model iPhone, such as the iPhone 6, is noted by the publication as being able to perform instructions 120,000,000 times faster than the Apollo era computer.
And yet, despite this raw power in our hands, most iPhones these days only navigate their owners to the nearest Tesco as a hands-free sat nav, rather than to the moon.
Perhaps it was less about the computing power and more to do with people power.
Indeed, the simplicity of the computing power used was perhaps integral to its success. Though the maintenance and space required for these machines far outweighed their processing power, the computer did exactly what it needed to do and did not malfunction during the mission. In fact, the only critical light that it flashed during the entire Apollo Program was as a result of the crew forgetting to turn off a radar! The moon landing was close to being cancelled due to this apparent error, as the Apollo Guidance Computer’s memory overloaded.
Today, the idea of entrusting so much to now-comparatively archaic technology seems insane. After all, it has been noted that the mission had several ‘single point failures’ — that is, a critical step that, if it failed to resolve, would bring the whole process down. This had the potential of being the difference between life and death.
The fact remains that, despite being done on the computing equivalent of a dinosaur, NASA still put a man on the moon. So why haven’t we repeated the mission? Presumably, with modern technology outstripping the computing potential of the 1960s, the task should have been streamlined somewhat.
Technology Review posits the reason to be down to simple resources. They argue that the original mission to the moon was one born of speed, not sustainability.
It was a race to get a man on the moon, and so there was no focus to making the model sustainable for repeat ventures.
There was a motivation, and a powerful one: to beat other countries and get a man on the moon before the end of 1969.
Now, with the reasons being slightly less grand (if one can call ‘moon-exploration’ a comparatively tame motivation), finding the funding and resources to back such a mission is much harder. The rocket used in the Apollo Mission, Saturn V, would cost around $1.16 billion today. There’s no other rocket with the firepower to match this, so travelling to the moon really does require that hefty expense.
No one wants to sink billions into repeating a mission that was already a success. Stepping on the moon just isn’t the lucrative goal it once was.
So while the technology of the Apollo 11 mission, sprawling through numerous rooms to churn out a tiny bit of processing power, might seem utterly outdated and laughable compared to a single, sleek smartphone tucked neatly into a stylish iPhone leather case, it turns out the team and the mission as a whole had something we no longer have; a valuable reason for wanting to get to the moon!