Cover Your Glass: A Lesson in Design Trades

Penn and Teller once had a show about “What is the best?” Engineers know that’s not a complete question. Think about a car. What makes the “best” car? It depends on why you want a car. For a race car driver, it might be that speed is the most important factor. A mom might value safety. Someone who commutes four hours a day might like a car that’s comfortable. A teenager wants something affordable.

If you think about it, though, it is even more complicated than that. For example, just about everyone wants a car that is safe. Reliability is pretty important, too. So the reality is, most people want a car that has multiple attributes. Worse still, they sometimes conflict; making one better will make some other ones worse. Mom wants a safe car, but not one that takes half a day to drive to the corner market. Nor does she want to pay a half million dollars for a safe car.

Continue reading “Cover Your Glass: A Lesson in Design Trades”

The Price of Space

Many engineers of a certain age have one thing in common: Their early interest in science and engineering came from watching the US and Russian space programs. To me, regardless of any other benefit from the space program (and there are many), that ability to inspire a future generation of engineers made the entire program worthwhile.

We live in a world where kids’ role models are more likely to be sports or entertainment figures that have regular visits to police stations, jails, and rehab centers. The value of having role models that “do science” is invaluable.

This time of the year is a dark time for NASA missions, though. On January 27, 1967, the Apollo I crew (Grissom, White, and Chaffee) died in a fire. The investigation led to NASA limiting how much Velcro you can use in a cabin and moving away from pure oxygen in the cabin.

Continue reading “The Price of Space”

Hanging Out With Someone Who Walked On The Moon

Lunar dune buggy rides, piloting the most powerful machine made by humankind, stuck thrusters, landing, eating, sleeping, and working on the moon. It does not get any more exciting than the Apollo program! I was recently given the opportunity to sit in on the MIT course, Engineering Apollo: the Moon Project as a Complex System where I met David Scott who landed on the moon as commander of Apollo 15. I not only sat in on a long Q and A session I also was able to spend time with David after class. It is not every day you that you meet someone who has landed on the moon, below are my notes from this experience.

Continue reading “Hanging Out With Someone Who Walked On The Moon”

Reproducing A DSKY

This is a project that is about a year and a half in the making, but [Fran] is finally digging into the most iconic part of the Apollo Guidance Computer and building the most accurate reproduction DSKY ever.

The Apollo Guidance Computer was a masterpiece of engineering and is frequently cited as the beginning of the computer revolution, but it didn’t really look that interesting – it looks like a vastly overbuilt server blade, really. When everyone thinks about the Apollo Guidance Computer, they think about the DSKY, the glowey keypad interface seen in the blockbuster hit Apollo 13 and the oddly accurate disappointment of Apollo 18. It’s the part of the Apollo Guidance Computer the Apollo astronauts actually interacted with, and has become the icon of the strange, early digital computers developed for NASA in the 60s.

There are a few modern DSKY replicas, but all of them are exceedingly anachronistic; all of these reproductions use seven-segment LEDs, something that didn’t exist in the 1960s. A true reproduction DSKY would use custom electroluminescent displays. These EL segments are powered by AC, and transistors back then were terrible, leading to another design choice – those EL segments were turned on and off by relays. It’s all completely crazy, and aerospace equipment to boot.

Because of the custom design and engineering choices that seem insane to the modern eye, there isn’t much in the way of documentation when it comes to making a reproduction DSKY. This is where [Fran] tapped a few of the contacts her historical deconstruction cred earned when she reverse engineered a Saturn V Launch Vehicle Digital Computer to call upon anyone who would have access to a real Apollo-era DSKY.

The first contact was the Kansas Cosmosphere who was kind enough to send extremely detailed photographs of the DSKYs in their archives. It would have been extremely nice to have old documentation made when the DSKYs were rolling off the assembly line, but that information is locked away in a file cabinet owned by Raytheon.

[Fran] got a break when she was contacted by curators at the National Air and Space Museum’s Garber facility who invited her down to DC. She was given the grand tour, including the most elusive aircraft in the museum’s collection, the Ho 229, the dual-turbojet Nazi flying wing. At the Garber facility, [Fran] received permission to take apart two DSKYs.

The main focus of [Fran]’s expedition to the Air and Space Museum was to figure out how the EL displays were constructed. The EL displays that exist today are completely transparent when turned off because of the development of transparent conductors.

The EL displays in the DSKY were based on earlier night lights manufactured by Sylvania. After looking at a few interesting items that included Gemini hardware and early DSKYs, this sort of construction was confirmed.

With a lot of pictures, a lot of measurements, a lot of CAD work, and some extremely tedious work, [Fran] was able to create the definitive reference for DSKY display elements. There are 154 separate switchable element in the display, all controlled by relays. These elements are not multiplexed; every element can be turned on and off individually.

Figuring out how the elements were put together was only one part of [Fran]’s research. Another goal was to figure out the electrical connections between the display and the rest of the DSKY. There, [Fran] found 160 gold pins in a custom socket. It’s bizarre, and more like a PGA socket than like the backplane connector [Fran] found in the Saturn V computer.

Even though [Fran]’s research was mostly on the EL panel inside the display, she did get a few more insights with her time with the DSKYs. The buttons are fantastic, and the best keys she’d ever used. This is just part one of what will be an incredibly involved project, and we’re looking forward to what [Fran] looks into next.

[Fran]’s New Project: The DSKY

[Fran] has already made a name for herself in some retro cool historical aviation and computer circles by tearing down a flight-ready spare of a Saturn V launch vehicle digital computer, the computer that was responsible for getting all flights to the moon into low earth orbit. Now she’s ready for another project, and again, this is something that hasn’t been done in 40 years. She’s building a DSKY, the control panel for the Apollo Guidance Computer

The Apollo Guidance Computer is a well-documented piece of computing history, with homebrew versions all over the web. The DSKY is only one small part of the AGC, but it is by far the most famous module. Being the only user interface for the AGC, it’s the only part of the AGC that gets all the screen time in Apollo 13, the travesty on BluRay that was Apollo 18, and is the only device that bears any physical resemblance to its real-life counterpart in a number of AGC simulators.

That’s not to say DSKY builds haven’t been attempted before; there are a few out there using LEDs and off-the-shelf buttons for the build, but the DSKY from the mid-60s is much, much cooler than a bunch of LEDs and light pipes. The eery green numbers are actually EL displays. Guess how those displays are controlled? Relays. It’s a masterpiece of technology, made even more impressive in that the folks at MIT who built the thing didn’t have anything better to build the display with.

Because of her deconstruction efforts with the Saturn V LVDC, [Fran] was invited down to the National Air and Space museum in the middle of Washington DC. There, she saw everyones favorite ugliest spacecraft, the Apollo LEM, along with an incredible assortment of paraphernalia from aviation history. The Wright Flyer – yes, the original one – is hanging from the ceiling next to the Spirit of St. Louis, and X-15 rocket plane, right above the command module Columbia from Apollo 11. Copies of probes currently rolling over Mars are on display, and you can walk through a training model of Skylab. If you’ve never been, spend half a day there, then take the metro out to the Udvar-Hazy center, where you’ll find all the stuff they couldn’t fit in the downtown collection like a Space Shuttle and a Concorde.

This is only the first part of [Fran]’s vlog documenting the construction of a copy of the DSKY, and we haven’t even seen the inner guts of the most famous part of the AGC yet. She’s been working on this for a while now, and there’s no doubt she’ll finish the job and come up with the best replica of a DSKY ever.

Apollo, the Everything Board

The best projects have a great story behind them, and the Apollo from Carbon Origins is no exception. A few years ago, the people at Carbon Origins were in school, working on a high power rocketry project.

Rocketry, of course, requires a ton of sensors in a very small and light package. The team built the precursor to Apollo, a board with a 9-axis IMU, GPS, temperature, pressure, humidity, light (UV and IR) sensors, WiFi, Bluetooth, SD card logging, a microphone, an OLED, and a trackball. This board understandably turned out to be really cool, and now it’s become the main focus of Carbon Origins.

There are more than a few ways to put together an ARM board with a bunch of sensors, and the Apollo is extremely well designed; all the LEDs are on PWM pins, as they should be, and there was a significant amount of time spent with thermal design. See that plated edge on the board? That’s for keeping the sensors cool.

The Apollo will eventually make its way to one of the crowdfunding sites, but we have no idea when that will happen. Carbon Origins is presenting at CES at the beginning of the year, so it’ll probably hit the Internet sometime around the beginning of next year. The retail price is expected to be somewhere around $200 – a little expensive, but not for what you’re getting.

Hackaday Links: December 22, 2013


[Korben] is using a picture frame as a Bluetooth speaker (translated). He hacked a Rock’R² for this project. It’s a device that has a vibrating element which can be used to make any hollow item into a speaker.

Entertain yourself over the holidays by mastering the Apollo Guidance Computer simulator. It’s a JavaScript version of the computer used in the modules of the Apollo moon missions.  [Thanks Gregory and Paul]

Here’s a little mirror attachment that lets you use your laptop as an overhead projector. [Ian] calls it the ClipDraw. Affix it to the webcam and use the keyboard as the drawing surface. Since it’s simply using the camera this works for both live presentations and video conferencing. What we can’t figure out is why the image doesn’t end up backward?

This guide will let you turn a Carambola board into an AirPlay speaker.

Those who suck at remembering the rules for a game of pool will enjoy this offering. It’s some add-on hardware that uses a color sensor to detect when a ball is pocketed. The Raspberry Pi based system automatically scores each game.

We spend waaaay too much time sitting at the computer. If we had a treadmill perhaps we’d try building [Kirk’s] treadmill desk attachment. It’s made out of PVC and uses some altered reduction fittings to make the height adjustable. It looks like you lose a little bit of space at the front of the belt, but if you’re just using it at a walking pace that shouldn’t matter too much.

You can have your own pair of smart tweezers for just a few clams. [Tyler] added copper tape to some anti-static tweezers. The copper pads have wires soldered to them which terminate on the other end with some alligator clips. Clip them to your multimeter and you’ve got your own e-tweezers.