Computers in Spaceflight: The NASA Experience
- Chapter Two -
- Computers On Board The Apollo Spacecraft -
MIT chosen as hardware and software contractor
[29] On August 9,1961, NASA contracted with the MIT Instrumentation Lab for the design, development, and construction of the Apollo guidance and navigation system, including software. The project manager for this effort was Milton Trageser, and David Hoag was the technical director11. MIT personnel generally agree that they were chosen because their work on Polaris proved that they could handle time, weight, and performance restrictions and because of their previous work in space navigation12. In fact, the Polaris team was moved almost intact to Apollo13. Despite their experience with aerospace computers, the Apollo project turned out to be a genuine challenge for them. As there were no fixed specifications when the contract was signed, not until late 1962 did MIT have a good idea of Apollo's requirements14. One of the MIT people later recalled that
If the designers had known then [1961] what they learned later, or had a complete set of specifications been available...they would probably have concluded that there was no solution with the technology of the early 1960s15.
Fortunately, the technology improved, and the concepts of computer Science applied to the problem also advanced as MIT developed the system.
[30] NASA's relationship with MIT also proved to be educational. The Apollo computer system was one of NASA's first real-time, large scale software application contracts16. Managing such a project was completely outside the NASA experience. A short time after making the Apollo guidance contract, NASA became involved in developing the on-board software for Gemini (a much smaller and more controllable enterprise) and the software for the Integrated Mission Control Center. Different teams that started within the Space Task Group, later as part of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, managed these projects with little interaction until the mid-1960s, when the two Gemini systems approached successful completion and serious problems remained with the Apollo software. Designers borrowed some concepts to assist the Apollo project. In general, NASA personnel involved with developing the Apollo software were in the same virgin territory as were MIT designers. They were to learn together the principles of software engineering as applied to real-time problems.

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