Retrotechtacular: The Saturn Propulsion System

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too”

When President Kennedy gave his famous speech in September 1962, the art of creating liquid-fueled rocket engines of any significant size was still in its relative infancy. All the rocketry and power plants of the Saturn series of rockets that would power the astronauts to the Moon were breaking entirely new ground, and such an ambitious target required significant plans to be laid. What is easy to forget from a platform of five decades of elapsed time is the scale of the task set for the NASA engineers of the early 1960s.

The video below the break is from 1962, concurrent with Kennedy’s speech, and it sets out the proposed development of the succession of rocket motors that would power the various parts of the Saturn family. We arrive at the famous F-1 engine that would carry the mighty Saturn 5 and start its passengers on their trip to the Moon at a very early stage in its development, after an introduction to liquid rocket engines from the most basic of first principles. We see rockets undergoing testing on the stand at NASA’s Huntsville, Alabama facility, along with rather superlative descriptions of their power and capabilities.

The whole production is very much in the spirit of the times, though unexpectedly it makes no mention whatsoever of the Space Race with the Soviet Union, whose own rocket program had put the first satellite and the first man into space, and which was also secretly aiming for the moon. It’s somewhat jarring to understand that the people in this video had little idea that such an ambitious program would be as successful as it became, or even that in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination the following year there would be such an effort to fulfill the aim set out in his speech to reach the moon within the decade.

The moon landings, and the events and technology that made them possible, are a subject of considerable fascination for our community. We must have covered innumerable stories about artifacts from the Apollo era in these pages, and no doubt more will continue to come our way in the future. Films like this one do not tell us quite the same story as does a real artifact, but their values lies in capturing the optimism of the time. Anything seemed possible in 1962, and those who lived through the decade were lucky enough to see this proven.

Fifty years from now, what burgeoning engineering efforts will we look back on?

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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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Debunking Moon Landing Denial with an Arduino and Science

It’s sad that nearly half a century after the achievements of the Apollo program we’re still arguing with a certain subset of people who insist it never happened. Poring through the historical record looking for evidence that proves the missions couldn’t possibly have occurred has become a sad little cottage industry, and debunking the deniers is a distasteful but necessary ongoing effort.

One particularly desperate denier theory holds that fully spacesuited astronauts could never have exited the tiny hatch of the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM). [AstronomyLive] fought back at this tendentious claim in a clever way — with a DIY LIDAR scanner to measure Apollo artifacts in museums. The hardware is straightforward, with a Garmin LIDAR-Lite V3 scanner mounted on a couple of servos to make a quick pan-tilt head. The rig has a decidedly compliant look to it, with the sensor flopping around a bit as the servos move. But for the purpose, it seems perfectly fine.

[AstronomyLive] took the scanner to two separate museum exhibits, one to scan a LEM hatch and one to scan the suit Gene Cernan, the last man to stand on the Moon so far, wore while training for Apollo 17. With the LEM flying from the rafters, the scanner was somewhat stretching its abilities, so the point clouds he captured were a little on the low-res side. But in the end, a virtual Cernan was able to transition through the virtual LEM hatch, as expected.

Sadly, such evidence will only ever be convincing to those who need no convincing; the willfully ignorant will always find ways to justify their position. So let’s just celebrate the achievements of Apollo.

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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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Space Escape: Flying A Chair To Lunar Orbit

In the coming decades, mankind will walk on the moon once again. Right now, plans are being formulated for space stations orbiting around Lagrange points, surveys of lava tubes are being conducted, and slowly but surely plans are being formed to build the hardware that will become a small scientific outpost on our closest celestial neighbor.

This has all happened before, of course. In the early days of the Apollo program, there were plans to launch two Saturn V rockets for every moon landing, one topped with a command module and three astronauts, the other one containing an unmanned ‘LM Truck’. This second vehicle would land on the moon with all the supplies and shelter for a 14-day mission. There would be a pressurized lunar rover weighing thousands of pounds. This wouldn’t exactly be a Lunar colony, instead, it would be more like a small cabin in the Arctic used as a scientific outpost. Astronauts and scientists would land, spend two weeks researching and exploring, and return to Earth with hundreds of pounds of samples.

With this, as with all Apollo landings, came a risk. What would happen if the ascent engine didn’t light? Apart from a beautiful speech written by William Safire, there was nothing concrete for astronauts consigned to the deepest of the deep. Later in the Apollo program, there was a plan for real hardware to bring stranded astronauts home. This was the Lunar Escape System (LESS), basically two chairs mounted to a rocket engine.

While the LESS was never built, several studies were completed in late 1970 by North American Rockwell detailing the hardware that would return two astronauts from the surface of the moon. It involved siphoning fuel from a stricken Lunar Module, flying to orbit with no computer or really any instrumentation at all, and performing a rendezvous with an orbiting Command Module in less than one Lunar orbit.

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The Longest Tech Support Call: Apollo 14 Computer Hack

Deep-voiced and aptly named [Scott Manley] posted a video about the computer hack that saved Apollo 14. Unlike some articles about the incident, [Scott] gets into the technical details in an entertaining way. If you don’t remember, Apollo 14 had an issue where the abort command button would occasionally signal when it shouldn’t.

The common story is that a NASA engineer found a way to reprogram the Apollo guidance computer. However, [Scott] points out that the rope memory in the computer wasn’t reprogrammable and there was no remote way to send commands to the computer anyway.

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Hackaday Links: August 20, 2017

Foam core, dollar tree foam board, Adams foam board, or whatever we’re calling a thin sheet of foam sandwiched between two pieces of poster board, is an invaluable hacker’s tool. Everyone should have a few sheets on hand, and not just because each sheet is a dollar each at any Dollar Store. [Eric] has been working on a technique to create compound curves in foam board, and the results look great. It’s a true three-dimensional plane with weird curves, and certainly has applications for something.

The Apollo Lunar Module is the first, and only manned space-only spacecraft ever made. The design of this spacecraft isn’t constrained by trivialities like ‘atmosphere’, and the design didn’t need ‘bulkheads thicker than a stack of paper towels’. It is a beautiful ship, and now a company wants to produce a gorgeous 1/32 scale model of the LEM. The goal is $25k, which is quite high for the real space modeling market, but if this GoFundMe campaign succeeds, this will be one of the finest real space models ever created. It’ll also match the scale of the 1/32 Revell CSM.

Speaking of Apollo-related technology, here’s a slight bit of drama. [Fran] has been working on recreating the DSKY — the user interface for the Apollo Guidance Computer — for a few years now. She’s set up a crowdfunding campaign to recreate the electroluminescent, screen printed segment display, and things are going great. Now there’s a company selling commercial DSKYs (with a stupid TFT display), that potentially uses the same art. Is this copyright infringement? Maybe, but probably not. It is a dick move not to credit [Fran], though.

The Monoprice Mini Delta is phenomenal. More on that in a bit.

There’s a complete solar eclipse happening across the United States tomorrow. Many schools should have started classes by then, but they’re calling tomorrow a snow day. Everyone who is traveling to see the eclipse is probably already where they’re going to be, and there are clouds on the horizon. Literal clouds. Everyone is watching the weather channel to see what the cloud cover will be tomorrow. Some people don’t have to worry: [Dan] is building a high-altitude balloon to get 100,000 feet above any clouds. There’s a 360° camera onboard, and the resulting video will be awesome. At least one person in Charleston will be renting a plane; I question the wisdom of renting a 172 over a Piper or Cirrus or another low-wing plane, but whatever. If you’re working on a project that will look at the eclipse from above the clouds, leave a note in the comments. For those of you looking at clouds tomorrow, Hackaday is doing another eclipse meet up on the Pacific coast of Mexico on April 8, 2024.