Re-Creating the Apollo DSKY’s Display

Apollo astronauts used the DSKY (Display-Keyboard) to interact with the flight computer with a series of 2-digit codes punched into a numeric keypad. Above the keyboard was a high voltage electroluminescent (EL) display whose segments were driven by electromechanical relays; old-ass technology not seen in operation in decades.

[Fran Blanche] is working to re-create the DSKY’s display, and is raising funds to make her first prototype. She was actually able to go dismantle a real DSKY at the Smithsonian, and this drove her desire to re-create the DSKY’s unusual display.

As [Fran] points out in her video, cinematic re-creations typically involve LED displays and CGI rather than the authentic EL 7-segs. Who would want that when you could have the original?

The DSKY is one of the most recognizable and historically relevant parts of the Apollo Command Module and it’s also quite rare. There are only a handful of  them around and of course none of them work. [Fran]’s display could help museums, collectors — and yes, moviemakers — re-create DSKYs with greater authenticity.

[Fran] is a good friend of Hackaday. If you missed her Hack Chat on antiquated technology last Friday you can check out the transcript here.

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Grace Hopper, Margaret Hamilton, Richard Garwin Named for Medal of Freedom

Somewhat hidden among athletes, actors, and musicians, three giants of technology have been aptly named as 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients. Grace Hopper, Margaret Hamilton, and Richard Garwin all made significant contributions to the technology that envelops our lives and embody the quest for knowledge and life-long self learning that we’d like to see in everyone.

Commodore Grace M. Hopper, USN (covered).

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper’s legacy lies with the origins of computer science. She wrote the first compiler. In a time when computers were seen more as calculating machines than easily adaptable frameworks she looked to the future and made it happen. She continued to make huge contributions with lasting effect in developing COBOL, unit testing methods for programmers, and in education. We have long loved her explanation of a nanosecond (and why software engineers shouldn’t waste cycles) and was one of the first to program on the Harvard Mark I which can still be seen in the lobby of the school’s engineering building.

margaret_hamilton_1995As Director of Apollo Flight Computer Programming, Margaret Hamilton is the driving force behind the software of Apollo. When the program started, she was Director of Software Engineering at MIT Instrumentation Laboratory. Originally there wasn’t a plan or budget for software in the space program. Hamilton built the program and led the team who wrote the software and turned it into punch cards to be fed into the computer. We enjoyed reading about some of her adventures during the Apollo project, her drive to develop pristine code is palpable. Over the past year we’ve marveled at the rope memory of the Apollo Guidance Computer and delighted when a hardcopy of AGC software showed up at a party. Her legacy at having written the code for the first portable computer — one that happened to land on the moon and return home safely — is incredible.

richardgarwin1980Physicist Richard Garwin’s name is most associated with the first hydrogen bomb design. But another part of his work is more likely to have directly touched your life: his research into spin-echo magnetic resonance helped lead to the development of Magnetic Resonance Imaging. MRIs have of course become a fundamental tool in medicine. Garwin studied under Fermi during his doctoral work — you may remember Fermi from our look at the Fermiac analog computer last year.

Congratulations to these three recipients, their recognition is incredibly well deserved. We’d love to hear about some of your own technology heroes. Let us know on the tips line so that we may help celebrate their accomplishment and inspire the next generation of giants.

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Retrotechtacular: Power Driven Articulated Dummy

If any of you have ever made a piece of clothing, you’ll know some of the challenges involved. Ensuring a decent and comfortable fit for the wearer, because few real people conform exactly to commercial sizes. It’s as much a matter of style as it is of practicality, because while ill-fitting clothing might be a sartorial fail, it’s hardly serious.

When the piece of clothing is a space suit though, it is a different matter. You are not so much making a piece of clothing as a habitat, and one that will operate in an environment in which a quick change to slip into something more comfortable is not possible. If you get it wrong at best your astronaut will be uncomfortable and at worst their life could be threatened.

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Apollo: The Alignment Optical Telescope

The Apollo program is a constant reminder that we just don’t need so much to get the job done. Sure it’s easier with today’s tools, but hard work can do it too. [Bill Hammack] elaborates on one such piece of engineering: The Alignment Optical Telescope.

The telescope was used to find the position of the Lunar Module in space so that its guidance computer could do the calculations needed to bring the module home. It does this using techniques that we’ve been using for centuries on land and still use today in space; although now it’s done with computer vision. It was used to align the craft to the stars. NASA used stars as the fixed reference points for the coordinate system used to locate objects in space. But how was this accomplished with great precision?

The alignment optical telescope did this by measuring two unknowns needed by the guidance computer. The astronaut would find the first value by pointing the telescope in the general area necessary to establish a reading, then rotate the first reticle (a horizontal line) on the telescope until it touched the correct star. A ring assembly was then adjusted, moving an Archimedes spiral etched onto the viewfinder. When the spiral touches the star you can read the second value, established by how far the ring has been rotated.

If you’ve ever seen the Lunar Module in person, your first impression might be to giggle a bit at how crude it is. The truth is that much of that crudeness was hard fought to achieve. They needed the simplest, lightest, and most reliable assembly the world had ever constructed. As [Bill Hammack] states at the end of the video, breaking the complicated tool usually used into two simple dials is an amazing engineering achievement.

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Decoding Rediscovered Rope Memory From the Apollo Guidance Computer

On August 25th, 1966, an Apollo Command Module was launched aboard a Saturn IB rocket in mission AS-202. This mission was intended to immediately precede the ill-fated Apollo 1 mission, the AS-202 was unmanned, serving as a test of flight hardware, fuel cells, and the guidance and navigation control systems. This mission used the first Apollo Guidance Computer ever flown, and this mission was vital to testing the computer that would take men to the moon.

While the software from the later missions exists and is available on Github, the earlier Block I spacecraft, including the unmanned Apollo 4 and Apollo 6 missions, are poorly documented. [Francois Rautenbach] was lucky enough to get his hands on the rope memory modules from the AS-202 mission. Now he’s investigating these modules with oscilloscopes and x-rays to recreate some of the first software that was flown in space.

The procedure to extract the data from these rope memory modules is a bit harder than reading a bit of Flash off a chip. Rope memory is weird, but with a contraption made out of a lot of relays and an oscilloscope, [Francois] was able to capture data from these memory modules.

Of course, [Francois] first needed to figure out the pinout for the gigantic backplane connector on each of these memory modules. To do that, he checked out a Block II AGC, read the schematics very carefully, and reverse engineered a connector that isn’t made anymore. The next step was x-raying the rope memory modules to see how they were assembled. Even though these memory modules contain the only extant copy of the Block I AGC software, even reading one bit off of these modules is an amazing case of technological archeology.

The answer to the obvious question — where did these modules come from — is exactly what you would expect. These memory modules were picked up off a scrap heap forty years ago. The gentleman who found these modules was kind enough to give them to [Francois]. Check out the videos below for [Francois]’ video logs. If you’re into slightly more destructive testing of forgotten Apollo flight hardware, [Fran Blanche] tore down a few modules from the Apollo Launch Vehicle Digital Computer a few years ago.

Thanks to [Vincent], [Danie], and [Kent] for jumping on this one and sending it into the tip line.
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Hackaday Links: August 14, 2016

Hey London peeps! Hackaday and Tindie are doing a London meetup! It’s this Wednesday, the 17th.

What do you do if you need Gigabytes of storages in the 80s? You get tape drives. What do you do if you need Terabytes of storage in the year 2000? You get tape. The IBM Totalstorage 3584 is an automated tape storage unit made sometime around the year 2000. It held Terabytes of data, and [Stephen] picked up two of them from a local university. Here’s the teardown. Unfortunately, there’s no footage from a GoPro stuck inside the machine when it’s changing tapes, but the teardown was respectable, netting two drives, the power supplies, and huge motors, fans, relays, and breakers.

A few years ago Motorola released the Lapdock, a CPU-less laptop with inputs for HDMI and USB. This was, and still is, a great idea – we’re all carrying powerful computers in our pocket, and carrying around a smartphone and a laptop is effort duplication. As you would expect, the best use for the Lapdock was with a Raspberry Pi, and prices of Lapdocks have gone through the roof in the last few years. The Superbook is the latest evolution of this Lapdock idea. It’s a small, thin, CPU-less laptop that connects to a phone using a special app and a USB cable. It also works with the Raspberry Pi. Very interesting, even if they didn’t swap the CTRL and Caps Lock keys as God intended.

Did you know we have a store? Yes! It’s true! Right now we need to get rid of some stuff, so we’re having a clearance sale. We got FPGA Arduino shields! Buy a cordwood puzzle! SUPERLIMINAL ADVERTISING.

The computers aboard Federation vessels in the 24th century were based on isolinear chips. Each chip plugged into a backplane, apparently giving certain sections of the ship different functions. Think of it as a reconfigurable PDP Straight-8. This is canon, from TNG, and doesn’t make any sense. [Bohrdasaplank] over on Thingiverse has a few different models of isolinear chips. After close examination of these chips, we can only come to one conclusion.

How do you get a pilot bearing out of a motor? The normal way is using grease (or caulk, or some other gooey substance) as a hydraulic ram, but a slice of bread works much better. This is a weird one, but it works perfectly, with hardly any cleanup whatsoever.

542-page PDF warning here. Here’s the operations manual for the Apollo 15, including operation of the AGC, how to fly the LM, the planned traverses and EVAs, and a nice glossary of handy equations. If anyone’s looking for a LaTeX, InDesign, or bookbinding project that would make the perfect bathroom reader, this is it.

Here’s something I’ve been having trouble with. This is an mATX computer case with a screen on the side and a cover for the screen that includes a keyboard and trackpad. Yes, it’s a modern version of the luggable, ‘portable’, plasma-screen monsters of the 80s. I don’t know where I can buy just the case, so I’m turning to the Hackaday community. There’s an entire line of modern luggable computers made by some factory in Taiwan, but as far as I can tell, they only sell to resellers who put their own mobo and CPU in the machine. I just want the case. Where can I buy something like this? If you’re asking why anyone would want something like this, you can put two 1080s in SLI and still have a reasonably portable computer. That’s a VR machine, right there.

Riding Shotgun In The Apollo 12 Lunar Lander

Last week we had a walk through of the Lunar Module’s source code with Don Eyles, who wrote the landing programs. Now you can take a rather thrilling ride to see Don’s code in action.

Below is an annotated video of the Apollo 12 landing, in real-time. It’s worth setting aside a quarter-hour to check it out. In an age where everyone is carrying around an HD (or way better) camera in their pocket, following along with radio broadcasts, still images, and small slivers of video might not sound that awesome. But it is!

p63-apollo-12-codeThe video takes us from Powered Descent Initiation through touchdown on the Moon with Pete Conrad and Alan Bean. As the audio plays out the video has annotations which explain what is going on and that translate the jargon used by the team. With the recently celebrated push to publish the source code you can even follow along as the video displays which program is running at that time. Just search for the program code and you’ll find it, like this screenshot of the P63 routine. The code comments are more than enough to get the gist of it all.

If you enjoy this, the description of the YouTube video below includes links to similar videos for Apollo 11, 14, 15, 16, and 17.

[Thanks to Paul Becker for sending along this video]