History ColumnTransportation, Aerospace & Aeronautics

A Master Class in Ingenuity

By Robert Colburn, IEEE History Center

IEEE is celebrating the contributions of its members to human space travel. As part of this effort, the IEEE History Center has been collecting first-hand histories by IEEE members who worked on the Gemini, Apollo, and other space projects. Together, these reminiscences comprise a master class in ingenuity and creative problem-solving. Every aspect of these projects—the spacecraft, the controls, the medium they were to fly through, the temperatures—all called for new solutions.  Added to this was the enormous scale of the project.

As a service to today’s technologists, as well as to commemorate the achievements of IEEE members, IEEE History Center staff built a page on the Engineering and Technology History Wiki (ETHW) to collect these vital eyewitness views of technical history. The page has approximately twenty Oral Histories (including one by Commander James Lovell), and thirty First-Hand Histories. Here are just a few paragraphs from the many fascinating stories people are telling. To read them all, please visit: https://ethw.org/Human_Space_Travel_Primary_Sources.

As a PhD student in the UK, I was responsible for studying the moon by radar, and established that, for the most part, the surface was sandy, smooth and undulating and not hazardous for humans to land on. These findings were later confirmed by close up photographs taken by NASA. The work was published in 1957 and caused studies undertaken by the US Navy that had reached similar conclusions, but had been classified, to be released. This encouraged the thought of a moon landing at a time when optical astronomy could not resolve features on the moon’s surface smaller than 1/2 kilometer.

—John Evans

We reasoned that the data collection problem could be solved with a memory and i/o channel dump procedure triggered by placing a number related to the address of the procedure in location 67, a computer “hack.” On every restart without a mission program running, this would execute the memory dump program which would dump the data and then return to finish the restart procedure. We then found that the built-in telemetry routine could be redirected to transmit this data via telemetry to the ground station. This hack of the Apollo Guidance Computer was so helpful in fault analysis that it became a standard part of Command Module testing at North American Aviation.

—Walt Whipple


For the Apollo 11 mission, I assisted at the operations console to acknowledge the countdown, and report station status for the Saturn V launch. After the launch, I went along to the radar site (C-band) tracking the S-IVB stage during translunar injection. We intently watched the oscilloscope displaying beacon signals for radars from across the United States to Africa. On a remote, volcanic island with lunar-like landscapes, this seemed a fitting way to see Apollo 11 begin its voyage. After this, much time was spent in the operations room listening to the mission via NASA communications.

—George Gentzler

The proposal efforts for the LM, originally known as the LEM, included motion and fixed-base studies of both the landing phase and the docking phase. Both of these phases lasted about two hours, the maximum duration that analog computers would run before needing readjustment to eliminate drift.

One day, early in the LM development, the Grumman VP of Engineering addressed a group of about 30 of us and stated that he had an impossible job for us with no money limitations. We all laughed out loud and told him under those conditions we could do anything. He then explained we were to design and build a LM full mission simulator including man-in-the-loop with out-of-the-window displays that was also capable of including flight hardware in place of computer models when the hardware was available. At that, we stopped laughing and got to work. The system design was based on the engineering organization, resulting in separate rooms for flight hardware mounting and interfacing, the mock-up and out-of-window displays, and the analog and digital computer rooms.

—John H. Sachleben

We hope these excerpts will inspire even more people to send their space reminiscences in. If you have a story to tell, please got to https://ethw.org/Create or email Robert Colburn at r.colburn@ieee.org


Robert Colburn

Robert Colburn is research coordinator at the IEEE History Center. Visit the IEEE History Center’s Web page. For more articles by History Center staff, visit their publications page or visit the IEEE History Center’s Web page. The IEEE History Center is partially funded by donations to the History Fund of the IEEE Foundation.

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