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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Hacking the International Space Station with a toothbrush


[Douglas Adams] will tell you not to forget your towel when it comes to space travel. But NASA may start mandating that astronauts always carry a toothbrush. That’s because when a recent repair on a critical International Space Station component went wrong it was a toothbrush hack that saved the day.

The culprit here is a bolt that wouldn’t re-seat after replacing a power transfer module that routes electricity from solar cells to the station’s electrical systems. About how many times have you had trouble with bolt threads? Now put yourself in a space suit in orbit for eight hours trying to get the thing to work. Yikes!

Just like in the movies there was a team of engineers at the ground center which gathered all the supplies available in the ISS. They figured out that metal shavings in the threaded hole needed to be cleaned out and the area lubed for the bolt. One of the two types of tooth brushes on hand would work for the lube, but needed to be stiffened. There was also a brush for cleaning the threads which was made out of a jumper cable. The images seen above are the step-by-step instructions the team uploaded to the astronauts who reproduced their hacked hardware to complete the repairs.

[Thanks G Mob]

NASA inspired circadian rhythm lights


After reading about an initiative between NASA and Boeing to develop lights for the International Space Station [Rasathus] decided to give it a go at building his own. The project uses RGB pixels to build a circadian rhythm light installation. Without the normal rise and fall of the sun the sleep wake schedule for the astronauts can be pretty rough. This uses color and intensity of light in a well-defined schedule to help alleviate that. [Rasathus] is trying to bring his project in well under the $11.1 million mark which was established for the ISS.

The light modules he’s using are from a strand of LEDs from Adafruit. Each is driven by a WS2801 controller, a common driver used for easy and complicated projects like this huge ball of light which our own [Jesse Congdon] tackled. The board above is the start of an adapter board for interfacing with the Raspberry Pi GPIO header. [Rasathus] wanted to make certain he didn’t fry the control electronics so he built some protection into this adapter. The control software is covered in the second portion of  the write up. We’ve embedded the video from that post after the break.

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NASA is 3D printing rocket engine parts

In case you haven’t heard, NASA is building a new rocket – a replacement for the shuttle – that will eventually take crews again outside low Earth orbit. It’s called the Space Launch System and looks surprisingly similar to the Saturn V that took men to the moon. Manufacturing technology is light years ahead of what it was in the mid-60s, and this time around NASA is printing some rocket parts with selective laser melting.

Teams at the Marshall Space Flight center are melting metal powder together with lasers to produce parts for the new J-2X engine intended for use in the earth departure stage of the Space Launch System. While the 3d-printed parts haven’t seen a use in any live fire tests of the J-2X, the goal is to test these parts out later in the year and eventually have them man-rated, to carry astronauts to the moon, asteroids, or even Mars.

This isn’t the first time 3d printing has been used to make rocket engines. Earlier this year we saw [Rocket Moonlighting] build an entire rocket engine, powered by propane and NO2, using the same technology that NASA is using. [Moonlighting]’s engine is quite small, too small to lift itself off the ground, even. Still, it’s awesome to see 3D printing that will eventually take people into solar orbit.

Saving the ISS by hacking a toothbrush


We absolutely love these stories of hacker ingenuity saving peoples lives. In this case, it was aboard the ISS, and the item being hacked was a toothbrush.

The story is as follows. Some equipment failed, as space junk tends to do, and the astronauts found themselves needing to do some repairs. Upon inspection, they couldn’t remove some modules due to an accumulation of “space dust” around some bolts.  This was especially troubling as the unit in question was something that was supposed to route power from some of the solar arrays to the ISS. Even more troubling is that another unit failed while they were assessing the situation.

Realizing they had to act fast so as not to lose too much power to function, they cobbled together some tools to allow them to clean out the access ports and remove the units for repair. A task that sounds like an easy solution here on earth proved to be life threatening in space. Eventually though, their makeshift tools came to the rescue and they were able to repair and restore power.

CalTech’s manipulator-arm equipped robot

[Justin] wrote in to tell us about the rover which his CalTech team has entered in NASA’s Exploration Robo-Ops Competition. Their time to shine is later this week, but you can see some of the test footage after the break.

The operator pictured above is using a controller which is a scale model of the manipulator arm, with two cameras giving feedback. One of those monitors shows a feed from the arm itself, providing a view of the gripper. The other feed is a wide shot of the working area from the body of the robot. The arm has six degrees of freedom actuated by servo motors. The controller is a replica of the arm laser cut from acrylic. At each joint there’s a potentiometer whose value is used to establish the position of the frame.

At first we thought that this would be more fatiguing and less convenient than using a gaming controller. But as we look at the dexterity of the arm it becomes obvious that joysticks and buttons would just make things more difficult.

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SpaceX finally launches, [Scotty] makes it to space.

We’ve been eagerly anticipating the first launch of our new space era. Like it or not, NASA isn’t going up anymore, so someone else has to. When we posted that the launch event was going to be broadcasted live (which ultimately failed), there was a lot of debate in our comments on the subject of private vs government entities doing the space traveling. There was also a lot of childish bickering.

Just to clarify, Hackaday’s official stance is, “Go to space”. We do not care if it is the government, [Elon Musk], The russian space program, a hackerspace in a home made rocket, or an evil billionaire. We just want space research to continue. Sure, there are drawbacks to some of these, most notably that the evil billionaire would most likely be doing this to kill us all, but at least the research would be funded.

You can watch a short clip of the launch, and while you do so, remember that on board that ship are the ashes of actor [James Doohan] also known as [Scotty]. That’s pretty awesome.