Kent Chronicles

February 2013

Space and Computers; Science and Technology of the 1970s

From http://insertcredit.c-gaom/2012/11/14/tenmes-pong-is-better-than/



Russian Firsts

First Satellite ____________________________________

First living creature _______________________________

First man_______________________________________

Excerpt from JFK’s Rice Moon Speech, 1962

For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.

Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world's leading space-faring nation.

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Three Programs of the 1970s

1. _______________________________________ Technically started in 1963, the glory days of the program occurred in 1969, but drama and much scientific work was done in the early 1970s.

2. _______________________________________ Tested the limits of the human body in space while simultaneously serving as a science lab in orbit.

3. ________________________________________ Cooperation in space between astronauts and cosmonauts.

4.________________________________________ Development of the iconic space vehicle started in the late 1970s then successfully launched in 1981.

Apollo Program

Started with the intent of following Kennedy’s direction to land a man on the moon and bring him back safely.   Build off from the Mercury and Gemini programs to launch a three man crew toward space on top of a Saturn 5 rocket.

The program started with tragedy, as Apollo 1 (January, 1967) ended in a training accident that cost the life of 3 astronauts.  This caused NASA to stop to rethink and reengineer the entire program.

Apollo 7 (October, 1968) was the launch of the new capsule and the three man crew.

Apollo 11 (July, 1969) First moon landing including the famous “one small step for man” quote.

Apollo 13 (April, 1970) Reintroduced with the Tom Hanks movie, problems occurred once in space on the way to the moon.  Through a joint effort and ingenuity, NASA was able to bring back the astronauts safely.

Apollo 17 (December, 1972) Finally moon landing for NASA.  All told, there were six landings between missions 11-17.

Apollo Sites


The program was designed to further test human reaction to zero gravity as well as to conduct a wide array of experiments across a multitude of scientific fields.  Three crews manned the station logging 28 days, then 59 days, and finally 84 days in space proving through endurance and testing that people can survive for that extended time in space.  

        The first crew focused on Earth observations using cameras, radar and other instruments.  These allowed for the study not only of the Earth’s surface itself, but also crop surveys, terrain measurements, and watch weather patterns develop.  Additionally, the Sun was an object of study as cameras were equipped to allow views that were impossible in Earth’s atmosphere, such as a study of X-rays and ultraviolet wavelengths.  Additionally, there was a camera that simulated a total eclipse of the Sun so that the corona could be studied.

        During the second mission, the Earth and Sun continued to play a prominent part in experiments. “The Earth survey data covered most of the United States and parts of 33 other countries. The photographs and data supported studies in ecology and environmental quality, agriculture, forestry, mapping, geology, water resources, fishing, oceanography, mineral prospecting, and meteorology.”  Additionally, the Sun was an object of study as cameras were equipped to allow view that were impossible in Earth’s atmosphere, such as a study of X-rays and ultraviolet wavelengths.  There was also a camera that simulated a total eclipse of the Sun so that the corona could be studied.

For the final mission, a set of experiments were designed to learn about the role gravity plays in the creation of materials on Earth.  It was confirmed that gravity hugely influences the way that materials form.

        In the end, Skylab was seen as a huge success and an important stepping stone to the future International Space Station.

Skylab websites - The official NASA website for Skylab.  A good overview. - A much enlarged narration of the Skylab project, I based most of my information off this site.


Final flight of the Apollo project was an effort to dock with a Soviet Soyuz capsule in orbit.  Between 1973 and 1975, cosmonauts and astronauts visited each other’s countries 8 times to prepare for the mission.  Great technical difficulties were surmounted to design an airlock to hook the two capsules and the language barrier was also broken when each crew learned the language of the other.  July 17, 1975 witnessed the first docking of capsules of different nations.  They spent 2 days in joint activities and conducted 5 experiments together.

Apollo-Soyuz Websites - This is a good overview of the program.

The Shuttle

In 1978, the Shuttle started gliding tests on the back of a Boeing 747.  It would make its first test launch in 1981 and really belongs to a different era than the Apollo program.  It was the most sophisticated piece of equipment at that time with new flight control system, computer integration, and the materials used in its construction are super cool!  We will revisit the space shuttle another month!


NASA Overview

If you have Netflix, you should check out the documentary “When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions” as it covers all of the missions pretty well.


First off, why are computers called computers? _____________________________________________________________________________________“Computers” have a longer history than most people know.  Back in 1822, a British gentleman, Charles Babbage got funding to create a difference engine which could do calculations, but was unable to make the full machine.

Vacuum Tubes

The first modern acting computers were put to use in WWII.  The British run Colossus was the key to breaking down the German enigma machine codes.  These machines used vacuum tubes to process the information they were given.  They were huge, room sized, machines that were hot and unreliable.  The data was good but you were lucky if you could get them to run for half an hour at a time.


Transistors replaced vacuum tubes in computer processing.   Although usually associated with the small transistor radios, these semiconductors were the key to making faster computers.  They are much smaller than the vacuum tubes and did not have the same problems with heat.  The first transistor computers were still huge machines.  The Atlas, the world’s first supercomputer was built in 1962 and weighed in at a hefty 20 tons.  Each transistor had to be hardwired in so it was a complicated mess, but it worked.


In 1959, the idea of the microprocessor was born when scientists realized that multiple transistors could be embedded on a piece of silicon which improved speed and decreased the size of the hardware.  However, silicon was difficult to work with and these “integrated circuits” were highly expensive.  Technical growth might have been slow were it not for the development of the Apollo program.  NASA needed a computer that was powerful enough to help run the navigation for both the command module and the lunar lander.  Weight was a major concern and the big transistor computers were out of the question.  In concert with MIT, NASA managed to create a powerful computer that weighed in at a svelte 70 pounds that could help with the navigation, particularly when the Apollo astronauts were out of radio contact on the far side of the moon.


How did people first communicate with computers?___________________________________________

The computer would respond with a printout.

With the addition of a monitor, communicating became easier though the use of the _____________________________________________, which allowed the technician to communicate much more quickly.

The final iteration, for now, the ___________________________________________________________ allows people to communicate with the machine using pictures.

Personal Computing

Up till now, we have been talking mostly about government and business computers.  But a new wave hit in the mid 1970s.

The Altair 8800 was the first big commercially successful personal computer.  For the low low price of $439 (approximately $1800 today) you could get one.  Then you had to assemble it.  Only the most dedicated hobbyists could really make them work.  The machine would work with the BASIC computer language, which was the brainchild of a partnership that would later become MicroSoft.

The Apple II was the first user friendly computer.  Released in 1977, it came with a color display and the BASIC language built in, so it was ready to use right out of the box.  This machine was available for the low low price of $1,298 (approximately $4,900 today).

The Internet

The first iteration of the thing we call the internet was _________________________________.

Initially, the system was funded by the Defense Department as a way for limited computing power to be shared among all the facilities in the United States.  However, it gained a life of its own as some of the scientists involved in the work believed that the entire point of the project was not to connect machine to machine but to connect the people behind those machines together.  The first e-mail was sent in 1971 and even the hip Queen of England got on board in 1976.

Computers explained- 

History of computers (BBC) part 1-