THIS DAY IN HISTORY: NASA Awarded The First Apollo Development Contract In 1961

By  //  August 10, 2016

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August 10, 1961

The Director of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, Doc Draper (NASA Image)

The Director of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, Doc Draper (NASA Image)

(NASA) – When President John F. Kennedy challenged Congress in May 1961 to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, the Apollo Program had already been underway for about a year as a long-term development project. The new deadline created some significant problems.

One of those was how to fit a room-sized navigation computer into the Apollo spacecraft so that the crew could safely navigate to and from the Moon.

This was now a problem that had to be solved quickly because decisions about the guidance system had major impacts on the design and operation of the rest of the Apollo hardware.

On August 10, 1961, NASA awarded the first Apollo development contract to the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory to design the spacecraft guidance computer.

The MIT team, under the leadership of Doctor Charles Stark (“Doc”) Draper assured NASA that getting to the Moon and back would be simpler than efforts to guide antiballistic missiles or navigate a nuclear submarine around the world underwater (which had been done in 1960).

The lab had lots of experience in inertial guidance systems, and had even helped to design a proposed unmanned mission to photograph Mars in 1959.

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The Apollo Guidance Computer they designed was a marvel of 1960s engineering. It weighed only 70 pounds, and was one of the first computers to use integrated circuits. It was used on the nine Apollo flights to the Moon, as well as the three Skylab missions and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

The Apollo Guidance Computer was also re-purposed in the early 1970s and used in test flights of the first digital fly-by-wire systems at what is now the Armstrong Flight Research Center.


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