Third of a three-part series to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Moon landings.
In the Apollo program, the end-users were first and foremost the astronauts who had to fly the spacecraft the AGC controlled. They had widely varying perspectives about how much and what kind of control the computer should have. Wally Schirra was perhaps the most automation-resistant of the bunch. So much so, he planned to manually fly the re-entry of Apollo 7. When delays put the crew dangerously behind on checklist items, at the last minute he had no choice but to switch to automated re-entry. With the AGC in control, Apollo 7 splashed down safely, on schedule and within 2 miles of their intended target. After the mission, Schirra couldn't stop singing the praises of the AGC. He felt it had saved their lives, giving the crew the extra time they needed to finish stowing equipment, strapping in and preparing for the ferocity of re-entry.
This is the third of three articles about the AGC. In parts 1 and 2, we described the hardware1 and software.2 Here, in part 3, we focus on applications by recounting the users' stories in applying the AGC to achieve Apollo mission objectives. These users' stories are not to be confused with User Stories, a formal agile development technique for specifying requirements.
There are no user's stories without verbs and nouns
It is impossible to write about how Apollo astronauts flew to the moon without using
nouns. Unlike Kubrik's Apollo era film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the crew held conversations
with their HAL 9000 computer20, Apollo crews interacted directly with the AGC through EL displays
and a keypad called the DSKY (pronounced disskee).15,16 Verb codes specified an action to take.
Noun codes specified the data upon which the action was taken.5,6 For example, to
display current velocity, the astronauts would perform the following keystrokes,
Enter. The verb code
06 means to display some data in decimal. The noun code
60 means the data for velocity. The keystrokes,
meant to begin a pre-launch major mode program to align the Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU). More on that
later from an experience on Apollo 8.
Data displayed to or entered by the astronauts via the DSKY was handled in English units and converted to/from the metric system for internal guidance computations. The astronauts sometimes referred to the AGC as the fourth crew-member. After hundreds of hours training in simulators, they had AGC code-speak memorized and could probably operate it blindfolded. Nonetheless, operating the DSKY in the thickly gloved hands of a spacesuit, quickly and accurately under the time pressures of critical flight maneuvers, was not easy. Dave Scott explained that in the lunar module, the computer's Proceed button, the main engine Shutdown button, and the Abort button were in such close proximity3, it would have been very easy for users to hit the wrong button at the wrong time. Users had to think very hard to avoid making such a mistake. This is a surprising vulnerability to have existed given the amount of human-computer interface design effort that went into the whole GN&C system.
What an elementary school girl knew about the AGC that Apollo 8 didn't
While practicing guidance alignments with the space sextant on the return leg of Apollo 8,
the crew accidentally keyed in a command to start a pre-flight program,
P01, instead of star
01 from the AGC's star catalog. This corrupted key guidance parameters in erasable
memory. It took NASA and MIT nine long hours to radio up a fix to the problem. Fortunately, this
incident occurred during a segment of the flight where there were no time-critical maneuvers scheduled.
Little did the crew know that an elementary aged school girl had helped to find this problem, and a
program change to fix it had been proposed in the months prior to their flight.
One user nobody had planned for was Margaret Hamilton's daughter, Lauren. Once while playing astronaut during a visit with her mother at work, Lauren managed to key in DSKY commands causing an AGC simulator to crash. The simulator was running an in-flight program and Lauren had keyed in a command to select and run a pre-flight program.21 Alarmed, Hamilton's first thought was what if an astronaut did that in flight? She investigated the cause and proposed a program change to prevent such mistakes. However, NASA believed the astronauts were so well trained they would never make such a mistake. The program change was rejected. After the accidental entry on Apollo 8, the change was approved and implemented.
Flashing the AGC with EMPs
EMPs are Erasable Memory Programs;4 that is, programs stored in erasable rather than fixed AGC memory. While frequently used for special-purpose ground testing of the AGC, EMPs were considered too risky for crewed missions because of the last minute changes they entailed. However, they were used with increasing regularity in later Apollo missions to work in functionality that had been fully developed but nonetheless couldn't make the typical four month lead time for rope core manufacture. An early success of EMPs happened on Apollo 9, an Earth orbital mission to test the lunar module descent and ascent engines and CSM/LM rendezvous. A key capability the astronauts wanted was to have the AGC maintain the CSM nose always pointing "down" toward the Earth as it orbited. This meant the CSM needed to rotate in sync with its orbital position. A program to support this had been developed and tested in simulators earlier but was not part of Apollo 9's rope core flight program. Once in orbit, the astronauts entered a few dozen DSKY keystrokes to upload the EMP, and it worked exactly how they wanted it to work.
Overcooking the barbecue
Passive Thermal Control (PTC) or Barbecue Mode, is likely the most temperamental maneuver in the Apollo program. The goal is to spin the spacecraft rotating on its long axis at one to three revolutions per hour to even out solar heating. The challenge is to get the spacecraft barbecuing such that it can coast for long periods without falling into a bad wobble. Wobble causes IMU sensor drift, risk of gimbal lock, and overuse of RCS propellants. Unless the axis of rotation is perfectly aligned with a principle axis, coasting rotations can be unstable, leading to wobble.17,18,19 Rotational behavior and subsequent control is further complicated when a majority of the spacecraft's mass is fluid, such as propellants even if in baffled tanks.
Ultimately, the challenge in this maneuver is getting the angular momentum vector of the barbecue roll to align well with a principle axis. The more out of alignment these two axes were, the more wobble and subsequent RCS control to counter the wobble the AGC would have to exert. On Apollo 10, the recurring RCS jet firings and resulting spacecraft bending noises were so problematic, the astronauts were unable to sleep. NASA asked MIT for a solution.
There were various approaches to get the spacecraft into the desired roll. One was to seek a desired angular momentum and simply apply the torque necessary to maintain it. That was the algorithm MIT had developed and implemented in Apollo 10's flight program. That approach causes the RCS jets to regularly fire to maintain the needed torque. But, as MIT thought about the problem, another way to get the spacecraft into the barbecue roll was to start from zero initial conditions and apply a series of tiny, impulsive torques accelerating the rotation to the desired roll rate and then letting the spacecraft coast thereafter. This latter approach was more likely to result in better alignment of the barbecue roll with a principle axis. Instead of using the AGC, the astronauts used their manual hand controllers at minimum impulse. Over a period of 10-20 minutes, they slowly accelerated the roll with a series of short bursts of the RCS jets. This approach worked perfectly and the astronauts got their much needed sleep.
Cycle stealing gone awry; restart to the rescue
GN&C sensors such as the IMU and radar used the technique of cycling stealing10 to update their state in AGC erasable memory. In cycle stealing, normal program execution is briefly paused. The program counter temporarily stops incrementing while data from external hardware is routed over the bus to the computer's erasable memory. In normal operation, delays caused by cycle stealing were insignificant, occurring perhaps dozens of times per second. However, in Apollo 11 there was a phasing problem in the rendezvous radar circuitry, causing cycles to be stolen at their maximum allowed rate of 12,800 times per second. The resulting delays in essential guidance and control programs meant the computer occasionally did not have sufficient resources to complete all work within its pre-defined duty cycle triggering program alarms.7
As Armstrong and Aldrin streaked across the lunar horizon and dropped to the surface, their
DSKY flashed a program alarm, momentarily stopped operating and blanked out. The AGC effectively rebooted.
All running programs were cleared and those that were protected were restarted in priority
order according to a pre-programmed set of restart rules. Restart took only a few seconds and had been
designed into the AGC from the very beginning. Remarkably, an internal NASA report9 had
raised significant doubts about its value only months prior to the Apollo 11 mission. As Apollo 11
approached the lunar surface for landing, changing major mode programs from
computational load on the AGC lessened and the program alarms abated.
Why wasn't the landing aborted? Turns out it was...in simulations with the Apollo 12 backup crew just weeks prior to Apollo 11's launch.8 Flight controllers in those simulations were excoriated for calling an abort then because the circumstances didn't warrant it. At NASA's behest, MIT performed an audit of all program alarms the AGC could trigger. A 26 year old Jack Garman compiled a cheat sheet, pictured above, which he consulted during the Apollo 11 landing to give the "go" decision to flight controllers to continue the landing, a process that took 30 long seconds in which time the LEM dropped over a mile in altitude and traveled 10 miles downrange.
"Try SCE to aux"
Less than 30 seconds into the launch of Apollo 12, with the Saturn booster accelerating them toward space with 7 million pounds of thrust, much to the surprise of the crew, the AGC went on the fritz. The DSKY went blank and then the whole cabin lit up with caution and warning lights and buzzers. Pete Conrad reported "we just lost the whole platform". In mission control...the same story. All the telemetry went on the fritz. Telemetry screens filled with gibberish. Nonetheless, John Aarons recognized something familiar in that gibberish. In simulations years prior to Apollo 12, Aarons had experienced a similar situation that produced the same screens of telemetry gibberish. He remembered the solution then was to switch the CSM Signal Conditioning Equipment (SCE) to Auxiliary. Aarons had mission control radio up to the crew "Try SCE to Aux." Miraculously, the AGC and all the displays in mission control came back to life and Apollo 12 safely continued into orbit.
Apollo 12 had been hit by lightning. Fortunately, the AGC was only monitoring the Saturn booster during the launch, not actually controlling it. A second computer, the Launch Vehicle Digital Computer (LVDC) designed and manufactured by IBM, was controlling the vehicle into Earth orbit. The LVDC worked flawlessly, and Apollo 12 went on to perform a pin-point landing within a short lunar stroll of Surveyor III.26 To achieve this landing accuracy, AGC software was enhanced to incorporate tracking telemetry from multiple ground stations simultaneously.
Early on, MIT engineers adopted a what-if approach to software development, trying to account for every possible contingency. For Apollo 9, MIT software developers needed to create a major mode program that allowed the crew to test the lunar module descent engine while remaining docked with the CSM, a configuration not ordinarily used or needed for any other Apollo mission but considered the safest for the first ever test of the lunar module.
Instead of removing that code from future flight programs, MIT asked what if we might need that in a future mission? The crew of Apollo 13 would benefit from this what-if thinking. The guidance code that was developed for that configuration remained in the flight program for later Apollo missions and is what enabled the crew of Apollo 13 to use the LM descent engine for the first two burns that 1) put them on a free return trajectory and 2) accelerated their return to bring them home 24 hours sooner. A third burn was also needed but because the AGC had been shut down to conserve power, a second computer, the Abort Guidance System (AGS), was used. In the third burn, a guidance technique using the Sun and both end-points of the Earth's terminator was used. At least one member of the crew, Jim Lovell, had practiced this technique on a prior mission on Apollo 8.
A quarter million mile tech support call
During Apollo 14, the Abort button in the LEM was found to be faulty. It was occasionally
closing a circuit, indicating to the AGC that the Abort button had been pushed, which of course
would be disastrous if occurring during a landing attempt. MIT needed to quickly devise a
procedure that the crew could use to allow the landing to proceed without risk of it being inadvertently
aborted due to the faulty switch. Apollo 14 waited, orbiting the moon and delaying their landing
for four long hours as MIT poured over AGC source code looking for a solution that required as few
keystrokes as possible but provided assurance the faulty Abort switch would be ignored by the
computer. The fix involved over-writing certain flag bits in AGC erasable memory at key points
during the descent.14 For example, if they could fool the computer into thinking the
abort mode was already active, the logic was such that the AGC wouldn't try to abort when an abort already
in progress. In the first minute of powered descent, major mode program
P63, the crew had
to work together timing the entry of no less than 60 DSKY keystrokes as well as manual throttle
settings to ultimately work around the faulty Abort button.23 But, MIT's procedure worked, and
Apollo 14 went on to the most accurate landing of all missions, just 175 feet from its target.
If Apollo 14 had really needed to abort, the crew would have had to enter the following keystrokes:
Of the 42.5 kg of moon rocks Apollo 14 brought back, the biggest, known as Big Bertha24 at 9 kg,
was just this year determined to have originated from Earth.
Computing and spaceflight
Computing was an absolutely essential tool for the Apollo program. Each Apollo lunar landing mission included four on-board guidance computers. There was on AGC in each of the the CSM and LM. The Launch Vehicle Digital Computer (LVDC) provided guidance for the Saturn rocket's first three stages during launch and the Abort Guidance System (AGS) on the LM, which served as a backup to the AGC in case a lunar landing needed to be aborted. Below, we list some of the key specifications of each of these computers, along with a Russian design of the same era.
|Clock (Mhz) /
|Weight (kg) /
|LVDC12||IBM||14, 28.5||2.048, 3||33, 137||Triple-redundant logic w/voting|
|AGS11||TRW||18, 4.6||?????, 12.5||15, 90||Used on Apollo 9, 10, 11 & 13|
|AGC25||Raytheon||16, 76||1.024, 14.5||32, 55||First to exceed 100 Flops/Watt|
|Argon-11C27||NEIM (Russian)||14&17, 9||?????, 5.2||34, 75||Triple-redundant logic w/voting|
But the role computing played in the Apollo program was not confined to autonomous guidance for the spacecraft in actual missions. Computing and simulation were used by every major subcontractor, in every phase of development of every vehicle and almost every subsystem. Computing was a key facilitator in providing realistic simulators of the CSM and LM to train Apollo crews. Computing was used to manage a significant portion of information coordinated among various subcontractors. In NASA's Real-Time Computing Complex (RTCC) alone, 5 IBM 360/75s were in use 24/7 during every mission. The RTCC supported ground tracking, computation of orbits, trajectories, rendezvous solutions, abort contingencies, weather forecasting, and more. NASA would not have met President Kennedy's challenge of landing people on the moon before 1970 without the major role computing and simulation played. The Apollo program simultaneously drove innovations in computing and benefited from them.13