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.

Start Your Apollo Collection With An Open Source DSKY

Given that there have been only six manned moon landings, and that almost all of the hardware that started on the launch pad was discarded along the way, getting your hands on flown hardware is not generally the business of mere mortals. Such artifacts are mostly in museums or in the hands of very rich private collectors. Enthusiasts have to settle for replicas like this open source Apollo Guidance Computer DSKY.

The DSKY, or Display and Keyboard, was the user interface for the Apollo Guidance Computer, that marvel of 1960s computer engineering that was purpose-built to control the guidance and navigation of the Command and Lunar Excursion modules. [ST-Geotronics] has made a decent replica of the DSKY using 3D-printed parts for the housing and bezel. There’s a custom PCB inside that houses a matrix of Neopixels for the indicator light panel and seven-segment LEDs for the numeric displays. Sadly but understandably, the original electroluminescent display could not be reproduced, but luckily [Fran Blanche] is working on just that project these days. The three-segment displays for the plus and minus signs in the numeric displays proved impossible to source commercially, so the team had to roll their own for that authentic look. With laser cut and engraved overlays for the displays and keycaps, the look is very realistic, and the software even implements a few AGC-like functions.

We like this a lot, although we could do without the sound clips, inspirational though Kennedy’s speech was. Everything is open source so you can roll your own, or you can buy parts or even a complete kit too.

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34C3: Ultimate Apollo Guidance Computer Talk

While it might not be as exciting as the Saturn V rocket itself, the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) was one of the most important developments of the entire Apollo program. While comically underwhelming compared to modern hardware, the AGC was nothing short of revolutionary when it was developed in the 1960’s. Before the AGC, the smallest computers were about the size of a refrigerator and consumed hundreds of watts; both big problems if you’re trying to pack them into a relatively tiny space capsule with limited resources. Not only did the AGC get humanity to the Moon and back, but it also redefined the state of the art for microcomputers, paving the way for the desktop systems of the 1970’s.

That said, the design and operation of the AGC is downright bizarre to modern eyes; it comes from a time of limitations we can hardly fathom. With this in mind, [Michael Steil] and [Christian Hessmann] put together “The Ultimate Apollo Guidance Computer Talk” for 34C3.

This hour-long presentation walks viewers through every aspect of not only the AGC itself, but how it interacted with the Saturn V rocket and the overall lunar mission. Even if you aren’t enough of a vintage computing aficionado to appreciate the complexities of core rope memory, the presentation gives a fascinating look at the gritty details of one of humanity’s greatest achievements.

Though very slick and easy to understand graphics, [Michael] and [Christian] break down the alien world of the AGC. Even if a lot of this part of the presentation goes over your head, just listen for the sounds of laughter or applause from the audience: that’s when you’re looking at something really off-the-wall.

Of particular note during this presentation is the explanation of how the astronauts actually interacted with the AGC. The AGC’s display and keyboard (referred to as DSKY) may seem rather obtuse even to those who used to hack on a VT100, but [Michael] and [Christian] explain how it’s not quite as complex as it seems. Comparing the input and output of the DSKY with what we would see on a more contemporary command line interface, the presentation makes the case that it’s actually a very straightforward way of talking to the computer.

There’s also a complete breakdown of the different phases of the Apollo mission from launch to landing, explaining what the AGC would be doing at any given time. The DSKY is overlaid on actual footage from the Apollo missions, giving a unique perspective as to what the astronauts would see on their computer during iconic moments such as stage separation or lunar touchdown.

If this presentation has you hungry for more Apollo-era computer technology, we’ve covered plenty of projects to keep you occupied. From building a replica DSKY to leisurely paging through the printed version of the AGC’s source code.

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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