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NASA's Apollo technology has changed history

July 20, 2009 02:46 PM ET

Lockney cited several technologies that can be directly linked engineering work done for the Apollo missions.

Software designed to manage a complex series of systems onboard the capsules is an ancestor to the software that today is used in retail credit card swipe devices, he said. And race car drivers and firefighters today use liquid-cooled garments based on on the devices created for Apollo astronauts to wear under their spacesuits. And the freeze-dried foods developed for Apollo astronauts to eat in space are used today in military field rations, known as MREs, and as part of survival gear.

And those technologies are just a drop in the bucket to importance of the development of the integrated circuit, and the emergence of Silicon Valley, which were very closely linked to the Apollo program.

The development of that integrated circuit, the forbearer to the microchip, basically is a miniaturized electronic circuit that did away with the manual assembly of separate transistors and capacitors. Revolutionizing electronics, integrated circuits are used in nearly all electronic equipment today.

While Robert Noyce, co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and then Intel Corp. is credited with co-founding the microchip, Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments demonstrated the first working integrated circuit that was built for the U.S. Department of Defense and NASA.

NASA, according to Lockney, set the parameters of what it needed out of the technology and then Kilby designed it. Kilby later won the Nobel Prize in Physics for for creating the technology.

"The co-investment between defense and civilian space was very real and hugely important," said Hubbard.

"With Apollo, they needed to cut down on weight and power consumption. Mass into space equals money," he said. "It has been and continues to be about $10,000 a pound to get to lower Earth orbit. They certainly don't want computers that take up basketball courts. They want something very powerful and very light that doesn't take massive power. That was one of the driving requirements that led to the development of the integrated circuit, where you put all the components on a chip rather than having a board stuffed with individual transistors and other circuit components."

He added that the microchip took the high-tech industry to a place of mass production and economies of scale.

"There was a major shift in electronics and computing and at least half credit goes to Apollo," said Hubbard. "Without it, you wouldn't have a laptop. You'd still have things like the Univac."

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