Posted on Jul 20, 2012 in Science & nature, Tech & internet
I’ve heard this before, but come on — more computing power is on the smartphone in my pocket than was on NASA’s Apollo spacecraft? Is this really true?
The Apollo moon landings are, without a doubt, the most ambitious goal and stunning achievements humanity has managed to pull off to date. To stick three guys on top of a large tube filled with high explosives, send them to another planet, have two of them land on that planet, and then all three return safely home was truly amazing. Add to that, to do it successfully 7 out of 8 times — with the only “failure” still bringing the astronauts home safely — is astonishing, especially when one considers the state of 1960s technology.
For a generation that has grown up on turn by turn GPS directions and the ability to look up any data needed at any time, it probably seems fantastic that we sent men to the moon and back with a computer that really wasn’t much more than an electric slide rule. Let’s take a look.
You know me, I just can’t help but write a little bit about history — and the Apollo guidance computer was pretty groundbreaking and historically notable.
The Apollo guidance computer (AGC) was developed by the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory in the early 1960s and was one of the first computers built to use integrated circuits (ICs) — commonly referred to by the general public as “microchips,” and now found in everything from your laptop to your toaster. The AGC contained about 2,800 of them, which was a big step up (or down, size-wise) from previous computers, which were wired together from thousands and thousands of individual resistors, diodes, and so on.
Coupled with a primitive display and keyboard interface — abbreviated as DSKY — this modern marvel of its time allowed computer guidance, navigation, and control of the spacecraft — both of them, in this case, as both the command module and the lunar lander had separate but identical computers.
Okay, let’s cut to the chase. For this comparison, I’ve selected the Apple iPhone 4S as the phone of choice — simply due to popularity and general familiarity. No slight intended to Android fans. Here are the numbers:
Apollo Guidance Computer
Data from NASA’s Apollo Flight Journal, Computers in Spaceflight: The NASA Experience, and General Design Characteristics of the Apollo Guidance Computer — declassified in 1973.
Dimensions: 24 x 12.5 x 6.5 inches
Weight: 70 pounds
Processor speed: 1 MHz
Memory: 2,048 words (32,768 bits or roughly 4kB)
Display: seven-segment numeric
Power consumption: 55 watts
Price: $150,000 (est.)
Apple iPhone 4S
Data from Apple, phonearena.com, and chipdesignmag.com.
Dimensions: 4.5 x 2.31 x 0.37 inches
Weight: 4.9 ounces
Processor speed: 800 MHz, dual core
Memory: 512 MB of RAM, built in storage of 16, 32, or 64 GB
Display: 3.5 inches, full color, 649 x 960 pixels
Power consumption: 0.7 to 1.5 watts
Price: starting at $199 (with 2-year contract)
Well, that’s what almost 50 years of advancements in computer technology will do for you. So yes — you carry more computing power in your pocket than astronauts carried to the moon. For that matter, you carry more computing power than the space shuttle did, too — designed over 10 years after the Apollo computer.
Now, if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to build and use an Apollo computer, don’t fret — you don’t have to break into the Smithsonian and climb aboard. If you’ve got a couple years to spare and about $3,000 burning a hole in your pocket, you can build one like this guy did — he was nice enough to document the entire process.
Or you can just download this virtual AGC emulator. It’s just a bit easier on your wallet, marriage, and sanity.
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