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NASA's Apollo technology has changed history

Apollo lunar program made a staggering contribution to high tech development

July 20, 2009 02:46 PM ET

Computerworld - Forty years after astronauts on NASA's Apollo 11 spacecraft first landed on the moon, many experts say the historic event altered the course of space exploration as well man's view of itself in the universe.

The Apollo missions also had another major affect on the world -- rapidly accelerating the pace of technology development. The work of NASA engineers at the time caused a dramatic shift in electronics and computing systems, scientists say.

Without the research and development that went into those space missions, top companies like Intel Corp. may not have been founded, and the population likely wouldn't be spending a big chunk of work and free time using laptops and Blackberries to post information on Facebook or Twitter.

"During the mid- to late-1960s, when Apollo was being designed and built, there was significant advancement," said Scott Hubbard, who worked at NASA for 20 years before joining the faculty at Stanford University, where he is a professor in the aeronautics and astronautics department. "Power consumption. Mass. Volume. Data rate. All the things that were important to making space flight feasible led to major changes in technology. A little told story is how much NASA, from the Cold War up through the late '80s or early '90s affected technology."

It's fairly well-known that technology developed by NASA scientists routinely makes its way into products developed in the robotics, computer hardware and software, nanotechnology, aeronautics, transportation and health care industries. While the story that Tang, the bright orange powdered beverage, was developed for astronauts is just a myth, many other advancements - think micro-electromechanical systems, supercomputers and microcomputers, software and microprocessors - were also created using technology developed by NASA over the past half century.

Hubbard noted that overall, $7 or $8 in goods and services are still produced for every $1 that the government invests in NASA.

But the string of Apollo missions alone -- which ran from the ill-fated, never-flown Apollo 1 mission in 1967 to Apollo 17, the last to land men on the moon, in 1972 - had a critical, and often overlooked impact on technology at a key time in the computer industry.

Daniel Lockney, the editor of Spinoff, NASA's annual publication that reports on the use of the agency's technologies in the private sector, said the advancements during the Apollo missions were staggering.

"There were remarkable discoveries in civil, electrical, aeronautical and engineering science, as well as rocketry and the development of core technologies that really pushed technology into the industry it is today," he said. "It was perhaps one of the greatest engineering and scientific feats of all time. It was huge. The engineering required to leave Earth and move to another heavenly body required the development of new technologies that before hadn't even been thought of. It has yet to be rivaled."



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