Deconstructing Apollo Flight Hardware

[Fran] has been researching the Saturn V Launch Vehicle Digital Computer – the computer that flew all the Apollo flights into orbit and onwards towards the moon – for a while now. Even though she’s prodded parts of the LVDC with x-rays and multimeters, this is the first time she’s committed to a little destructive testing.

After [Fran] took a flight-ready LVDC spare to the dentist’s office for x-raying and did an amazing amount of research on this artifact from the digital past, there was only so much she could learn without prying apart a few of these small, strange chip packages. Not wanting to destroy her vintage LVDC board, she somehow found another LVDC board for destructive reverse engineering.

This new circuit board was a bit different from the piece in her collection. Instead of the chip leads being soldered, these were welded on, much to the chagrin of [Fran] and her desoldering attempts. After removing one of these chips from the board, she discovered they were potted making any visual inspection a little difficult.

While [Fran]’s attempts at reverse engineering the computer for a Saturn V were a bit unsuccessful, we’ve got to hand it to her for getting this far; it’s very, very likely the tech behind the LVDC was descended from ICBMs and would thus be classified. Documenting the other computer used in every Apollo launch is an impressive feat on its own, and reverse engineering it from actual hardware, well, we can’t think of anything cooler.

17 thoughts on “Deconstructing Apollo Flight Hardware

  1. If I remember correctly, the first generation or Block I birds, (Saturn V and its component stages.) had the components soldered in place much as we would with any permanent design. Also I believe the Block II birds were as well. Oddly enough the final family or Block III ones were welded as our correspondent has discovered. I believe documentation on these amazing examples of the digital past have been thoroughly documented elsewhere. Oh and guess who the contractor was who built them?

    Gang what does First Post cost on this subject?

  2. I just got trained as one of the operators of our company’s new X-Ray imager _specifically_ designed to look into industrial electronic assemblies and components!
    We’re located in Southern New Jersey, but if fate brings the project up here I’d be happy to give them contact information for my company. It might be that we could be of some service to each other.
    I, of course would be nothing short of absolutely thrilled to help, should my company allow it.

  3. One of the things that I’ve heard is that many of the design decisions are simply lost. We may have several diferent versions of the same part, but the /why/ the changes were made are no longer known. Was a pump design changed in order to fit a space, or to improve reliability, or so that stray electro-magnetics would not interfere with something else? Perhaps the pump was redesigned because the original cost too much. Those are the kinds of things that are truely lost

    1. Like Pete says, the documentation weighs about the same as the vehicle. NASA have always been really, really, really pedantic about documenting EVERYTHING, because it may save lives. And an astronaut dying is as much bad news, media-wise, as a small plane crash full of white people, or a medium-sized war in Africa.

      And space flight is REALLY DANGEROUS! So anal retentiveness really pays. They have to know the reasons for everything. Altho every now and then some information about O-rings gets lost for several months and Challenger blows up.

  4. Something else, that reference to the ICBM is incorrect. The Saturn family of launchers, all three of them, are in fact unrelated to the others we used for the space race. The three wore a completely new computer design. The ones for the Titan II and the Atlas and Redstone launchers were based on existing technology. Oddly enough all were built by the (former) IBM Federal Systems Division. The ones worn by the Apollo space craft and the Service Module were built largely all by hand by a completely different outfit.

  5. I worked for a California Electronics Company “Welded Electronic Modules” for a Summer Internship. The devices made were circuits put together with “NO SUBSTRATE” – (i.e. no circuit board) The components were put together with Nickle Ribbon and “WELDED” (Not Soldered – No Lead Solder) together. These small Welding machines were foot operated. There were no Solder blobs on these modules. Afterward, after testing they were plastic encapsulated (POTTED) with Extension Leads. This sounds like the same technology. To repair these modules, we used abrasive grinders to access the components. We would then replace the component, and the “REPOT” these devices.

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