Apollo R&D Changed Technology History

The spacecraft built to take humans to the moon was a catalyst for complex new technology.

The 40th anniversary of Apollo 11's flight to the moon last week prompted NASA and its supporters to reflect on the technology advances jump-started by the Apollo space program.

The third U.S. space flight program after Mercury and Gemini, Apollo is credited with greatly accelerating the development of several key, still-used technologies, including the integrated circuit, which dramatically altered the face of the computer industry in the 1960s and beyond.

NASA says that other technologies developed at least in part for the Apollo program are now used in products ranging from kidney dialysis machines to water purification systems and athletic shoes.

Experts also noted that without the technology research and development that accompanied the Apollo space missions, top tech companies like Intel Corp. may not have been founded, and we likely wouldn't be using devices like laptops and BlackBerries to post information on social networks like Facebook or Twitter.

The Apollo program was launched in 1961. It started with the ill-fated, never-flown Apollo 1 spacecraft in 1967 and ended with the Apollo 17 mission, which brought the program's final crew to the moon in 1972.

"During the mid- to late 1960s, when Apollo was being designed and built, there was significant [technology] advancement," said Scott Hubbard, a Stanford University professor and a former director of NASA's Ames Research Center in Sunnyvale, Calif.

"Power consumption, mass, volume, data rate -- all the things that were important to making space flight feasible led to major changes in technology," he added.

Beyond the Moon

Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group Inc., said the critical need for better, lighter technology for the Apollo missions, coupled with NASA's financial muscle, pushed advances much further and faster than the fledgling computer industry could have on its own.

"The big problem with inventing and producing breakthrough technology like integrated circuits is the massive cost," Olds added.

"At the early stages of development, everything involved, from tools to production machinery, is a one-off -- totally unique and untried," Olds said. "The spending associated with the Apollo missions gave the companies involved the ability to both invent and produce a working chip that made the missions possible."

The program cost $150 billion in current dollars.

Much of the early work on the integrated circuit, the forebear to the microchip, was done under contracts with NASA and the Department of Defense by companies like Texas Instruments Inc. and predecessors to Fairchild Semiconductor International Inc.

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

Since the 1960s, the integrated circuit has been a critical piece of many epochal products -- "from cell phones to Tickle Me Elmo to the Internet," Olds said.

Without the NASA funding, the technology landscape would probably be far different than it is now, Olds noted. "There would [still] be computers, but they'd be so large and expensive that they would only be used for a handful of specialized applications," he added.

Daniel Lockney, the editor of Spinoff, an annual NASA publication that reports on the use of the agency's technologies in the private sector, said that software designed to manage complex systems onboard the Apollo capsules is an ancestor of software now found in devices used to read credit cards. He also noted that liquid-cooled garments based on fire-resistant textiles created for Apollo astronauts are used today by race car drivers and firefighters.

This version of this story originally appeared in Computerworld's print edition. It's a modified version of an article that first appeared on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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