Retrotechtacular: The Apollo Guidance Computer

There is so much amazing technology that came out of the space race. For this week’s Retrotechtacular we’re looking at the guidance computer used in the Apollo program undertaken by NASA in the 1960’s.

One of the main components of this system is the Inertial Measurement Unit or IMU. That’s a familiar term for hackers who build quadcopters or other devices for which spacial awareness is paramount. In this case the IMU provided critical information about the motion and orientation of the capsule during it’s trip from the Earth to the Moon and back. But it wasn’t just high tech electronics along for the flight. To determine actual position a sextant was used for triangulating position. Yes, this is the same type of measuring device used for centuries. The method of using the sextant is displayed above. The spacecraft was turned until the sextant pointed at a landmark on Earth. The instrument was the adjusted to line up a star as a landmark, then the computer calculated position based on time and the angles of the two points being sighted. There’s a lot more shown in this thirty-minute film including in-depth assembly and testing of the computer components.

Before we point you to a few related articles we’d like to mention that our stash of really cool Retrotechtacular tips is running low. So if you know of some old footage that’s awesome to watch please send us a tip about it.

Now if you can’t get enough about NASA electronics you should check out the LVDC board which [Fran] got her hands on. Also, it’s worth checking out the unbelievable soldering techniques specified in the NASA manual. There’s a pretty good discussion about that going on in the Reddit thread.

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Digging deeper into the Apollo Saturn V LVDC


[Fran] went all-out with her reverse engineering of the Apollo Saturn V LVDC board. Regular readers will remember that she was showing of the relic early this year when she took the board to her Dentist’s office to X-ray the circuit design. Since then she’s been hard at work trying to figure out how the thing functions using that look inside the board and components. When we say ‘hard at work’ we really mean it. Not only did she explore many different theories that resulted in dead ends, she also built her own version of the circuits to make sure they performed as she theorized. Above you can see her version of the NAND/AND gates used on the hardware.

We find her explanation of how the logic devices were originally fabricated to be very interesting. They started with a ceramic substrate and used additive processes to form the traces and add the gates. We’ve embedded her video explanation after the jump.

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In-depth look at an LVCD board from a Saturn V rocket


Join [Fran] as she dons the hat of an electronics archaeologist when looking at this vintage circuit board from the space race. As part of her personal collection she somehow acquired a Launch Vehicle Digital Computer board for a Saturn V rocket. This particular unit was never used. But it would have been had the Apollo program continued.

[Fran] is enamored with this particular board because she believes it is the forerunner of modern digital circuit design and layout. Since routing circuit boards is part of what she does for a living you can see why this is important to her. Also, who isn’t excited by actual hardware from the space program? We’ve embedded two of her videos after the break. In the first she shows off the component to the camera and speaks briefly about it. But the second video has her heading to the dentist’s office for X-rays. The image above is a rotating X-ray machine, but it looks like the best imagery comes when a handheld gun is used. They get some great images of the traces, as well as the TTL components on the board itself.

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Lunar lander remade

For those that are lucky enough to remember it, Lunar Lander was a fantastic game. Though it had simple vector graphics and highly repetitive game play, it kept us captivated. We probably lost entire weeks of our lives competing with friends to be the best. Well, now we can relive that experience with a physical version of the game. [Lain] built this fantastic arcade style game to replicate Lunar Lander’s game play exactly. The style of the project is fantastic with giant analog meters and dials giving real time feedback.  You even get a prize if you complete all 3 levels. You can get plenty of build details by going through his blog. Maybe he should hook up with the folks that built the Apollo landing computer replica to build the ultimate simulator.

[thanks Mike]

Apollo Guidance Computer clone

[Cliff Miller] pointed out this incredible project from 2004. [John Pultorak]’s journey began in late 2000 when he decided to build a 60’s or 70’s era minicomputer. While gathering technical documentation, he found some interesting information on the Apollo Guidance Computer and felt that was the way to go. The AGC was the first integrated circuit computer ever built. Designed by MIT in 1964 it was constructed from ~5000 ICs, almost all 3-input NOR gates. [John]’s version uses late 1960’s 74LS TTL logic which gains him a 10 to 1 reduction in the number of ICs. A good thing when you have to do ~15K wirewrap connections. He also used flipflops and register chips instead of building everything from NOR gates. [John] essentially built the AGC three times: First, he coded a simulator in C++. Then, he imported the logic design into CircuitMaker to verify that it would actually work. Finally, he built the 3 by 5foot machine. He’s provided an amazing amount of documentation for anyone that wants to explore this device and the overview alone is well worth a look.