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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I Went To The Moon And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

It’s been a long time coming but [Fran] finally has a DSKY display, a replica of the user interface display found in the Apollo Guidance Computer. The best part? It’s a t-shirt.

This build is a long, long, time in the making first beginning in 2015 when Fran started investigating the DSKY of the Apollo Guidance Computer. At the time, there were reproductions, but honesty they were all terrible. The reproductions used off-the-shelf seven-segment LEDs or light pipes. The real DSKY was a work of art and at the time probably the most complex electroluminescent display ever created. This led [Fran] to a very special trip to the annex of the Air and Space Museum where she was allowed to inspect a real DSKY display. She got all the measurements, and with some non-destructive investigation, she was able to piece together how this very special display was put together.

With that information, [Fran] was able to figure out that this display was a fairly complex series of silk screens. If it’s silk screen, you can put it on a t-shirt, so that’s exactly what [Fran] did. This used a DIY silk screen jig with phosphorescent inks. It’s not an electroluminescent display, but it does glow in the dark.

While this DSKY t-shirt does glow in the dark, that means it’s not an electroluminescent display like the original DSKY. That said, screen printed electroluminescent displays on a t-shirt aren’t unheard of. Several years ago, a screen printing company did a few experiments with EL displays on wearables. Of course, if you want a real electroluminescent DSKY display, [Ben Krasnow] has a very modern reproduction of the screen printed display. The electronics of [Ben]’s project do not resemble what flew to the moon in any way whatsoever; the original DSKY had relays. That said, we’ve never been closer to a modern recreation of the display from an Apollo Guidance Computer, and we have [Fran] and [Ben]’s work to point us forward.

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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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An Apollo Guidance Computer Laid Bare

An Apollo Guidance Computer probably isn’t a machine that’s likely to come the way of most Hackaday readers. The device that played such a vital role in taking astronauts to the Moon and bringing them home again is hardly a common find, even if it is one of the most iconic machines of its type and era.

[Carl Claunch] was approached to assist in the restoration of an AGC, and while he can’t reveal any information about its owner he is at liberty to document his progress. The result is a fascinating in-depth technical examination of the device over multiple blog posts, and is well worth a read for anyone with an interest in the Apollo program. It’s an ongoing progression of blog posts that are probably too numerous to list individually, but include the construction of a substitute for the DSKY control panel as well as looking at the device’s memory and construction. [Carl] then embarks on a series of posts looking at the restoration itself. This is where we see the computer in greatest detail, and learn the most about it.

If you think you might have seen [Carl]’s name here before, you’d be right. One of his past exploits was getting the first version of FORTH running on an IBM mainframe.

Books You Should Read: Sunburst And Luminary, An Apollo Memoir

The most computationally intense part of an Apollo mission was the moon landing itself, requiring both real-time control and navigation of the Lunar Module (LM) through a sequence of programs known as the P60’s. Data from radar, inertial navigation, and optical data sighted-off by the LM commander himself were fed into the computer in what we’d call today ‘data fusion.’

The guy who wrote that code is Don Eyles and the next best thing to actually hanging out with Don is to read his book. Don’s book reads as if you are at a bar sitting across the table listening to his incredible life story. Its personal, hilarious, stressful, fascinating, and more importantly for those of us who are fans of Hackaday, it’s relatable.

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Margaret Hamilton Takes Software Engineering To The Moon And Beyond

If you were to create a short list of women who influenced software engineering, one of the first picks would be Margaret Hamilton. The Apollo 11 source code lists her title as “PROGRAMMING LEADER”. Today that title would probably be something along the line of “Lead software engineer”

Margaret Hamilton was born in rural Indiana in 1936. Her father was a philosopher and poet, who, along with grandfather, encouraged her love of math and sciences. She studied mathematics with a minor in philosophy, earning her BA from Earlham College in 1956. While at Earlham, her plan to continue on to grad school was delayed as she supported her husband working on his own degree from Harvard. Margaret took a job at MIT, working under Professor Edward Norton Lorenz on a computer program to predict the weather. Margaret cut her teeth on the desk-sized LGP-30 computer in Norton’s office.

Hamilton soon moved on to the SAGE program, writing software which would monitor radar data for incoming Russian bombers. Her work on SAGE put Margaret in the perfect position to jump to the new Apollo navigation software team.

The Apollo guidance computer software team was designed at MIT, with manufacturing done at Raytheon. To say this was a huge software project for the time would be an understatement. By 1968, over 350 engineers were working on software. 1400 man-years of software engineering were logged before Apollo 11 touched down on the lunar surface, and the project was lead by Margaret Hamilton.
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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.