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When programmers at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory set out to develop the flight software for the Apollo 11 space program in the mid-1960s, the necessary technology did not exist. They had to invent it.
They came up with a new way to store computer programs, called “rope memory,” and created a special version of the assembly programming language. Assembly itself is obscure to many of today’s programmers—it’s very difficult to read, intended to be easily understood by computers, not humans. For the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC), MIT programmers wrote thousands of lines of that esoteric code.
For Hamilton, programming meant punching holes in stacks of punch cards, which would be processed overnight in batches on a giant Honeywell mainframe computer that simulated the Apollo lander’s work. “We had to simulate everything before it flew,” Hamilton remembers. Once the code was solid, it would be shipped off to a nearby Raytheon facility where a group of women, expert seamstresses known to the Apollo program as the “Little Old Ladies,” threaded copper wires through magnetic rings (a wire going through a core was a 1; a wire going around the core was a 0). Forget about RAM or disk drives; on Apollo, memory was literally hardwired and very nearly indestructible.
Apollo flights carried two near-identical machines: one used in the lunar module—the Eagle that landed on the moon—and the other for the command module that carried the astronauts to and from Earth. These 70-pound Apollo computers were portable computers unlike any other. Conceived by MIT engineers such as Hal Laning and Hamilton’s boss, Dick Batton, it was one of the first important computers to use integrated circuits rather than transistors. As Mindell tells the story, it was the first computerized onboard navigation system designed to be operated by humans but with “fly-by-wire” autopilot technology—a precursor to the computerized navigation systems that are now standard on jetliners.
The system stored more than 12,000 “words” in its permanent memory—the copper “ropes” threaded by the Raytheon workers—and had 1,024 words in its temporary, erasable memory. “It was the first time that an important computer had been in a spacecraft and given a lot of responsibility for the mission,” says Don Eyles, who worked on the lunar module code while at MIT’s IL. “We showed that that could be done. We did it in what today seems an incredibly small amount of memory and very slow computation speed.” Without it, Neil Armstrong wouldn’t have made it to the moon. And without the software written by Hamilton, Eyles, and the team of MIT engineers, the computer would have been a dud.
Lauren had crashed the simulator by somehow launching a prelaunch program called P01 while the simulator was in midflight. There was no reason an astronaut would ever do this, but nonetheless, Hamilton wanted to add code to prevent the crash. That idea was overruled by NASA. “We had been told many times that astronauts would not make any mistakes,” she says. “They were trained to be perfect.” So instead, Hamilton created a program note—an add-on to the program’s documentation that would be available to NASA engineers and the astronauts: “Do not select P01 during flight,” it said. Hamilton wanted to add error-checking code to the Apollo system that would prevent this from messing up the systems. But that seemed excessive to her higher-ups. “Everyone said, ‘That would never happen,’” Hamilton remembers.
But it did. Right around Christmas 1968—five days into the historic Apollo 8 flight, which brought astronauts to the moon for the first-ever manned orbit—the astronaut Jim Lovell inadvertently selected P01 during flight.
After spending nine hours poring through the 8-inch-thick program listing on the table in front of them, they had a plan. Houston would upload new navigational data. Everything was going to be OK. Thanks to Hamilton—and Lauren—the Apollo astronauts came home.
originally posted by: nOraKat
Incredible how they accomplished that. You probably had to be really innovative to work with the limited memory and processing power, and writing everything in low-level code.
originally posted by: Maxatoria
a reply to: Tjoran
if you looked at them they'll probably have loads of pen marks where programmers worked it out first.
originally posted by: ArMaP
I miss assembly programming, much challenging than the high-level languages used by most programmers (including me) on their day to day work.