Apollo Guidance Computer Saved From The Scrap Yard

NASA needed a small and lightweight computer to send humans on their journey to the Moon and back, but computers of the day were made out of discrete components that were heavy, large, complicated, and unreliable. None of which are good qualities for spaceflight. The agency’s decision to ultimately trust the success of the Apollo program on the newly developed integrated circuit was an important milestone in computer history.

Given the enormity of the task at hand and the monumental effort it took, it’s surprising to learn that there aren’t very many left in existence. But perhaps not as surprising as the fact that somebody apparently threw one of them in the trash. A former NASA contractor happened to notice one of these historic Apollo Guidance Computers (AGC) at an electronics recycling facility, and thankfully was able to save it from getting scrapped.

The AGC was actually discovered in 1976, but it was decided to get the computer working again in time for the recent 50th anniversary of the Moon landing. A group of computer scientists in California were able to not only get the computer up and running, but integrate it into a realistic simulator that gives players an authentic look at what it took to land on the Moon in 1969.

Restoring a computer of this age and rarity is no easy feat. There aren’t exactly spare parts floating around for it, and the team had to go to great effort to repair some faults on the device. Since we covered the beginning stages of the restoration last year, the entire process has been extensively documented in a series of videos on YouTube. So while it’s unlikely you’ll find an AGC in your local recycling center, at least you’ll know what to do with it if you do.

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Hackaday Links: July 28, 2019

It looks like Apple is interested in buying Intel’s modem chip business. Seriously interested; a deal worth $1 billion could be announced as early as this week. That might look like a small potato purchase to the world’s biggest company – at least by market capitalization – but since the technology it will be buying includes smartphone modems, it provides a look into Apple’s thinking about the near future with regard to 5G.

It turns out that Make Magazine isn’t quite dead yet. [Dale Dougherty], former CEO of Maker Media, which went under in June, has just announced that he and others have acquired the company’s assets and reformed under the name “Maker Community LLC.” Make: Magazine is set to resume publication, going back to its roots as a quarterly publication in the smaller journal format; sadly there’s no specific word about the fate of Maker Faire yet.

The hoopla over the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 may be over, but we’d be remiss not to call out one truly epic hack related to the celebration: the full restoration of an actual Apollo Guidance Computer. The AGC was from a test model of the Lunar Module, and it ended up in the hands of a private collector. Since November of 2018 the AGC has been undergoing restoration and tests by [Ken Shirriff], [Mike Stewart], and [Carl Claunch]. The whole effort is documented in a playlist by [Marc “CuriousMarc” Verdiell] that’s worth watching to see what was needed to restore the AGC to working condition.

With the summer sun beating down on the northern hemisphere, and air conditioners at working extra hard to keep things comfortable. [How To Lou] has a quick tip to improve AC efficiency. Turns out that just spraying a fine mist of water on the condenser coils works wonders; [Lou] measured a 12% improvement in cooling. It may not be the best use of water, and it may not work as well in very humid climates, but it’s a good tip to keep in mind.

Be careful with this one; between the bent spoon, the syringe full of amber liquid, and the little candle to heat things up, this field-expedient reflow soldering setup might just get you in trouble with the local narcotics enforcement authorities. Even so, knowing that you can assemble a small SMD board without a reflow oven might prove useful someday, under admittedly bizarre circumstances.

From the “Considerably more than 8-bits music” file, check out the Hull Philharmonic Orchestra’s “8-Bit Symphony.” If your personal PC gaming history included a Commodore 64, chances are you’ll recognize songs from titles like “Monty on the Run”, “Firelord”, “Green Beret”, and “Forbidden Forest.” Sure, composers like [Ben Daglish] and [Paul Norman] worked wonders with the three-channel SID chip, but hearing those tunes rendered by a full orchestra is something else entirely. We found it to be particularly good background music to write by.

Space Age Bitcoin Mining On An Apollo AGC

Imagine you’ve got an Apollo Guidance Computer, the machine that took men to the Moon 50 years ago. You’ve spent ages restoring it, and now it’s the only working AGC on the planet. It’s not as though you’re going to fly to the Moon with it, so what do you do with it? Easy – turn it into a perfectly awful Bitcoin mining rig.

The AGC that [Ken Shirriff] and others have been restoring barely resembles a modern computer. The AGC could only do about 40,000 operations per second, but raw speed was far less important than overall reliability and the abundant IO needed to run a crewed spacecraft. It was a spectacular success on the Apollo missions, but [Ken] wanted to know if turning it into a Bitcoin mining rig was possible.

[Ken] gives a great overview of how Bitcoin mining works, with one of the best explanations of the hashing algorithm we’ve seen. Getting that to run on the AGC was no mean feat, especially with limits imposed by the memory addressing scheme and the lack of machine instructions for manipulating words. He eventually got it working, though, clocking in at a screaming 10.3 seconds per Bitcoin hash. [Ken] estimates that the first coin will be successfully mined in a mere 400 zettaseconds, which is about a billion times older than the universe. With about 13 quadrillion years to the first ka-ching, you have plenty of time to watch a block mined in the video below; alas, it was an old block, so no coins were awarded to compensate the team for their efforts.

This isn’t the first time [Ken] has implemented a useless Bitcoin mine. The Xerox Alto mine was actually fast compared to the AGC, but it sure beats the IBM mainframe and punchcards.

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Manufacturing New Connectors For The Apollo Guidance Computer

The fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission – the flight that first took man to the surface of the moon — is coming up. By the time this post is published, some YouTube channel will invariably be running a real-time-but-delayed-fifty-years live stream of all the mission events, culminating on the wee hours of July 20th where we wait hours for someone to figure out how to open the door.

[CuriousMarc] and space hardware collector [Jimmie Loocke] have a different type of anniversary in mind. They have an Apollo Guidance Computer sitting on a bed in a motel room, and they’re going to get it up and running by July 20th. That’s the plan, at least. This is no easy feat: the Apollo Guidance Computer looks like two 19-inch, 1U rack units, with no standardized connectors to talk to any other hardware. They’ve just figured out the hardest part of this build by making their own NASA-spec contacts. They can now connect external hardware to the AGC, probably for the first time in decades.

As it stands now, there are external ports on the gigantic bricks of aluminum enclosure that comprise the two AGC modules. These ports are just female pin headers, completely unlike any standard that can be found today. However, the folks at Samtec managed to build the male versions of these pin headers for this project. These pins fit the female sockets on one end, and are standard, square-shaped wire wrapped headers on the other. They are mounted in a milled plastic block, and after everything is wired up, [Marc] and [Jimmie] had a direct electrical connection to the Apollo Guidance Computer. The machine lives again.

There’s still a lot of work to do to get these bricks of computer up and running for the 20th, but this is fantastic progress. Already they’re single-stepping the AGC and running the P63 program that landed on the moon. Check out the video below.

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[Ben Krasnow] Makes A DSKY

There are hundreds if not thousands of artifacts from the Apollo program scattered around the globe, some twisted wrecks at the bottom of the ocean, others lovingly preserved and sitting in museums or in the hands of private collectors. All of what’s left is pretty much pure unobtainium, so if you want something Apollo-like, you’re probably going to have to make it yourself.

[Ben Krasnow] took up the challenge to make an electroluminescent Apollo-era DSKY display from scratch, with outstanding results. The DSKY, or “display and keyboard”, was the user interface for the Apollo Guidance Computer, the purpose-built digital navigation system that got a total of 24 men there and back again. [Ben] says it took a long time to recreate the display, and we can see why. He needed to master quite a few skills, including screen printing to get the glass-panel display working. The panel is a sandwich of phosphorescent paint, a dielectric, and conductive ink. The ink is silkscreened on the back to form the characters, all applied to indium tin oxide (ITO) conductive glass. A PCB with the same pattern of character segments lays behind that, driving each segment with 300 volts or so through a trio of HV507 high-voltage shift registers. It’s an impressive bit of engineering and gives off a decidedly not-homebrew vibe.

In the video below, [Ben] goes into detail about the trials he experienced on the way to this amazing endpoint, not least of which was frying chip after chip due to ineffective protection diodes in the shift registers. That’s an epic debugging story that’s worth the price of admission all by itself. It’s not the only DSKY in town, of course – [Fran Blanche] has been working on one for a while too – but there’s just something about that blue glow that we really like.

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Rolling Old School With Copy Protection From The 1980s

Oh, for the old days when sailing the seas of piracy was as simple as hooking a couple of VCRs together with a dubbing cable. Sure, the video quality degraded with each generation, but it was so bad to start out with that not paying $25 for a copy of “Ghostbusters” was a value proposition. But then came The Man with all his “rules” and “laws” about not stealing, and suddenly tapes weren’t so easy to copy.

If you’ve ever wondered how copy protection worked in pre-digital media, wonder no more. [Technology Connections] has done a nice primer on one of the main copy protection scheme from the VHS days. It was dubbed “Analog Protection System” or “Analog Copy Protection” by Macrovision, the company that developed it. Ironically, Macrovision the company later morphed into the TiVo Corporation.

The idea for Macrovision copy protection was to leverage the difference between what a TV would accept as a valid analog signal and what the VCR could handle. It used the vertical blanking interval (VBI) in the analog signal, the time during which the electron beam returns to the top of the frame. Normally the VBI has signals that the VCR uses to set its recording levels, but Macrovision figured out that sending extra signals in the VBI fooled the VCR’s automatic gain controls into varying the brightness of the recorded scenes. They also messed with the vertical synchronization, and the effect was to make dubbed tapes unwatchable, even by 1985 standards.

Copy protection was pretty effective, and pretty clever given the constraints. With Digital Rights Management, it’s easier to put limits on almost anything — coffee makers, arcade games, and even kitty litter all sport copy protection these days. It almost makes us nostalgic for the 80s.

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Hackaday Links: February 18, 2018

Hacker uses pineapple on unencrypted WiFi. The results are shocking! Film at 11.

Right on, we’ve got some 3D printing cons coming up. The first is MRRF, the Midwest RepRap Festival. It’s in Goshen, Indiana, March 23-25th. It’s a hoot. Just check out all the coverage we’ve done from MRRF over the years. Go to MRRF.

We got news this was going to happen last year, and now we finally have dates and a location. The East Coast RepRap Fest is happening June 22-24th in Bel Air, Maryland. What’s the East Coast RepRap Fest? Nobody knows; this is the first time it’s happening, and it’s not being produced by SeeMeCNC, the guys behind MRRF. There’s going to be a 3D printed Pinewood Derby, though, so that’s cool.

జ్ఞ‌ా. What the hell, Apple?

Defcon’s going to China. The CFP is open, and we have dates: May 11-13th in Beijing. Among the things that may be said: “Hello Chinese customs official. What is the purpose for my visit? Why, I’m here for a hacker convention. I’m a hacker.”

Intel hit with lawsuits over security flaws. Reuters reports Intel shareholders and customers had filed 32 class action lawsuits against the company because of Spectre and Meltdown bugs. Are we surprised by this? No, but here’s what’s interesting: the patches for Spectre and Meltdown cause a noticeable and quantifiable slowdown on systems. Electricity costs money, and companies (server farms, etc) can therefore put a precise dollar amount on what the Spectre and Meltdown patches cost them. Two of the lawsuits allege Intel and its officers violated securities laws by making statements or products that were false. There’s also the issue of Intel CEO Brian Krzanich selling shares after he knew about Meltdown, but before the details were made public. Luckily for Krzanich, the rule of law does not apply to the wealthy.

What does the Apollo Guidance Computer look like? If you think it has a bunch of glowey numbers and buttons, you’re wrong; that’s the DSKY — the user I/O device. The real AGC is basically just two 19″ racks. Still, the DSKY is very cool and a while back, we posted something about a DIY DSKY. Sure, it’s just 7-segment LEDs, but whatever. Now this project is a Kickstarter campaign. Seventy bucks gives you the STLs for the 3D printed parts, BOM, and a PCB. $250 is the base for the barebones kit.