From The AGC to Smartphones and Beyond

October 6th, 2018
4 min read

Today, space technology has evolved to an extent that mankind can envisage a future where space tourism could be a thing. In contrast, not even five decades ago, a single space expedition was a near to impossible task. The journey has been a historic one, much of which has been made possible by the power of modern computers, the foundation for which was laid in the 1960's.

The Moon Shot

Computers played a fundamental role in the first Apollo mission, and then eventual moon landing. Despite the fact that NASA's computers at that time were laugh-worthy by today’s standards, they were proper enough to guide humans across 356,000 km of space.

Apollo Guidance Computer

Apollo Guidance Computer
Apollo Guidance Computer | Courtesy -

Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC), designed at MIT, provided computation and electronic interfaces for guidance, navigation, and control of the spacecraft. Putting it simply, the AGC helped the astronauts to better control their spacecraft by passing in nouns and verbs as commands. To control the hardware, AGC had built-in machine code instructions using a compiler called Luminary.

On July 7, former NASA intern Chris Garry uploaded the entire AGC source code to github. The humorous nature of some code snippets and comments is noteworthy. The instructions for the master ignition burn is titled, BURNBABYBURN- -MASTERIGNITIONROUTINE, for example. There's even and explanation for it,

Master ignition routine nomenclature
Master ignition routine nomenclature
Read more about it here.

The AGC might've guided man to the moon but honestly, it wasn't particularly powerful. In fact, it ran on a 64 kB memory at an underwhelming 0.043 MHz. Our hand-held calculators are more equipped than that. (What?!)

How Far Have We Come?

Computers have come a long way since the first Apollo mission. Nowadays, as mentioned, even the simple pocket calculators that we use in our everyday life has more computing power than the computers which were used during the Apollo missions. Even our toasters are more equipped than the AGC which allowed the astronauts to control their spacecrafts.

To put things into perspective,

The iPhone 6 uses an Apple-designed 64 bit Cortex A8 ARM architecture composed of approximately 1.6 billion transistors. It operates at 1.4 GHZ and can process instructions at a rate of approximately 1.2 instructions every cycle in each of its 2 cores. That’s 3.36 billion instructions per second. Put simply, the iPhone 6’s clock is 32,600 times faster than the best Apollo era computers and could perform instructions 120,000,000 times faster. You wouldn’t be wrong in saying an iPhone could be used to guide 120,000,000 Apollo era spacecraft to the moon, all at the same time. [...]

That's an insane amount of power!

How Far Can We Get?

As it is evident, from digital cameras to Artificial Intelligence, computers have come a long way since then and remain instrumental in our journey to deep space exploration. It's only a matter of time before Mars Bar goes from being something you could munch on to a go-to spot for the space tourists.

But space exploration goes beyond establishing colonies on alien planets and there would be many more challenges further down the line. One of them being the constraints of human body. The limitations of human body will remain the drag in our advance to the deep space and it is difficult to envision human travel beyond a certain threshold. Inventor Ray Kurzweil, offers an interesting solution to this puzzle.

Based on Moore's Law, if the current trends continue, by 2030 computers would contain the equivalent number of circuits as there are neurons in the human brain. Assuming equivalence, it might just be possible to transfer human consciousness on to a computer chip which can then explore the uncharted territories of the universe, unconstrained by a human body as we know it. It might sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but once upon a time, so did space travel, laser beams, and talking machines.

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