Ch2-5 Computers in Spaceflight: The NASA Experience – Chapter Two – – Computers On Board The Apollo Spacecraft –     The Apollo guidance computer: Hardware     [34] The Apollo Guidance Computer was fairly compact for a computer of its time. […]


Computers in Spaceflight: The NASA Experience

– Chapter Two –

– Computers On Board The Apollo Spacecraft –



The Apollo guidance computer: Hardware



[34] The Apollo Guidance Computer was fairly compact for a computer of its time. The CM housed the computer in a lower equipment bay, near the navigator’s station. Block II measured 24 by 12.5 by 6 inches, weighed 70.1 pounds, and required 70 watts at 28 volts DC. The machine in the lunar module was identical.


Crew members could communicate with either computer using display and keyboard units (DSKY, pronounced “disky”). Two DSKYs were in the CM, one on the main control panel and one near the optical instruments at the navigator’s station. In addition, a “mark” button was at the navigator’s station to signal the computer when a star fix was being taken. A single DSKY was in the lunar module. The DSKYs were 8 by 8 by 7 inches and weighed 17.5 pounds. As well as the DSKYs, the computer directly hooked to the inertial measurement unit and, in the CM, to the optical units.


The choice of a 1 6-bit word size was a careful one. Many scientific computers of the time used 24-bit or longer word lengths and, in general, the longer the word the better the precision of the calculations. MIT considered the following factors in deciding the word length: (a) precision desired for navigation variables, (b) range of input variables, and (c) the instruction word format37. Advantages of a shorter word are simpler circuits and higher speeds, and greater precision could be obtained by using multiple words38. A single precision word of data consisted of 14 bits, with the other 2 bits as a sign bit (with a one indicating negative) and a parity bit (odd parity). Two [35] adjacent words yielded “double precision” and three adjacent, “triple precision.” To store a three-dimensional vector required three double precision words39 . Data storage was as fractions (all numbers were less than one)40. An instruction word used bits 15-13 (they were numbered descending left to right) as an octal operation code. The address used bits 12-1. Direct addressing was limited, so a “bank register” scheme (discussed below) existed to make it possible to address the entire memory 41.


The Apollo computer had a simple packaging system. The computer circuits were in two trays consisting of 24 modules. Each module had two groups of 60 flat packs with 72-pin connectors. The flatpacks each held two logic gates42. Tray A held the logic circuits, interfaces, and the power supply, and tray B had the memory, memory electronics, analog alarm devices, and the clock, which had a speed of one megahertz43. All units of the computer were hermetically sealed44. The memory in Block II consisted of a segment of erasable core and six modules of core rope fixed memory. Both types are discussed fully below.


The Apollo computer used few flip-flop registers due to size and weight considerations45, but seven key registers in the computer did use flip-flops:

  • The accumulator, register 00000, referenced as “A”.
  • The lower accumulator, 000001, L”.
  • The return address register, 000002, “Q”.
  • The erasable bank register, 000003, “EB”.
  • The fixed bank register, 000004, “FB”.
  • The next address, 000005, “Z”.
  • The both bank register, 000006, “BB” (data stored in EB and FB were automatically together here)46.

The use of bank registers enabled all of the machine’s memory to be addressed. The largest number that can be contained in 12 bits is 8,192. The fixed memory of the Apollo computer contained over four times that many locations. Therefore, the memory divided into “banks” of core, and the addressing could be handled by first indicating which bank and then the address within the bank. For example, taking the metaphor “address” literally, there are probably hundreds of “100 Main Street” addresses in any state, but by putting the appropriate city on an envelope, a letter can be delivered to the intended 100 Main Street without difficulty.


The computer banks were like the cities of the analogy. The erasable bank register held just 3 bits that were used to extend the direct [36] addressing of the erasable memory to its “upper” region, and the fixed bank register held 5 bits to indicate which core rope bank to address. In addition, for the addresses needing a total of 16 bits, a “super bank bit” could be stored and concatenated to the fixed bank data and the address bits in the instruction word47. This scheme made it possible to handle the addressing using a 1 6-bit word, but it placed a greater burden on the programmers, who, in an environment short of adequate tools, had to attend to setting various bit codes in the instructions to indicate the use of the erasable bank, fixed bank, or super bank bit. Although this simplified the hardware, it increased the complexity of the software, an indication that the importance of the software was not fully recognized by the designers.


To further reduce size and weight, the Apollo computer was designed with a single adder circuit, which the computer used to update incremental inputs, advance the next address register, modify specified addresses, and do all the arithmetic48. The adder and the 16 I/O channels were probably the busiest circuits in the machine.




The story of memory in the Apollo computer is a story of increasing size as mission requirements developed. In designing or purchasing a computer system for a specific application, the requirements for memory are among the most difficult to estimate. NASA and its computer contractors have been consistently unable to make adequate judgments in this area. Apollo’s computer had both permanent and erasable memory, which grew rapidly over initial projections.


Apollo’s computer used erasable merry cells to store intermediate results of calculations, data such as the location of the spacecraft, or as registers for logic operations. In Apollo, they also contained the data and routines needed to ready the computer for use when it was first turned on. Fixed memory contained programs that did not need to be changed during the course of a mission. The cycle times of the computer’s memories were equal for simplicity of operation49.


MIT’s original design called for just 4K words of fixed memory and 256 words of erasable (at the time, two computers for redundancy were still under consideration)50. By June 1963, the figures had grown to 10K of fixed and 1K of erasable51. The next jump was to 12K of fixed, with MIT still insisting that the memory requirement for an autonomous lunar mission could be kept under 16K 52! Fixed memory leapt to 24K and then finally to 36K words, and erasable memory had a final configuration of 2K words.


Lack of memory caused constant and considerable software [37] development problems, despite the increase of fixed memory 18 times over original estimates and erasable memory 16 times. Part of the software difficulties stemmed from functions and features that had to be dropped because of program size considerations, and part because of the already described addressing difficulties. If the original designers had known that so much memory would be needed, they might not have chosen the short word size, as a 24-bit word could easily directly address a 36K bank, with enough room for a healthy list of instruction codes.


One reason the designers underestimated the memory requirements was that NASA did not provide them with detailed specifications as to the function of the computer. NASA had established a need for the machine and had determined its general tasks, and MIT received a contract based on only a short, very general requirements statement in the request for band. The requirements started changing immediately and continued to change throughout the program. Software was not considered a driving factor in the hardware design, and the hardware requirements were, at any rate, insufficient.


The actual composition of the memory was fairly standard in its erasable component but somewhat unique in its fixed component. The erasable memory consisted of coincident-current ferrite cores similar to those on the Gemini computer, and the fixed memory consisted of core rope, a high-density read-only memory using cores of similar material composition as the erasable memory but of completely different design. MIT adopted the use of core rope in the original Mars probe computer design and carried it over to the Apollo53. Chief advantage of the core rope was that it could put more information in less space, with the attendant disadvantages that it was difficult to manufacture and the data stored in it were unchangeable once it left the factory (see Box 2-1).


[38] Box 2-1: Core Rope: A Unique Data Storage Device


Each core in an erasable memory could store one bit of information, and each core in the core rope fixed memory could store four words of information. In the erasable memory, cores are magnetized either clockwise or counterclockwise, thus indicating the storage of either a one or a zero. In fixed memory, each core functions as a miniature transformer, and up to 64 wires (four sets of 1 6-bit words) could he connected to each core. If a wire passed through a particular core, a one would be read. If a particular wire bypassed the core, a zero would he read. For example, to store the data word 10010001000011 1 1 in a core, the first, fourth, eighth, and thirteenth through sixteenth wires would pass through that core, the rest would bypass it. A 2-bit select code would identify which of the four words on a core was being read, and the indicated 16 bits would be sent to the appropriate register54. In this way. up to 2~000 bits could he stored in a cubic inch55.


The computer contained core rope arranged in six modules, and each module contained 6,144 1 6-bit words56. The modules further divided into “banks” of 1,024 words The first two banks were called the “fixed-fixed memory” and could he directly addressed by 12 bits in a instruction word. The remaining 34 were addressable as described in the text, using the 5-bit contents of the fixed bank register and the 10 bits in a instruction word57.

The use of core rope constrained NASA’s software developers. Software to be stored on core rope had to be delivered months before a scheduled mission so that the rope could be properly manufactured and tested. Once manufactured, it could not be altered easily since each sealed module required rewiring to change bits. The software not only had to be finished long in advance, but it had to be perfect.


Even though common sense indicates that it is advantageous to complete something as complex and important as software long before a mission so that it can be used in simulators and tested in various other ways, software is rarely either on time or perfect. Fortunately for the Apollo program, the nature of core rope put a substantial amount of pressure on MIT’s programmers to do it right the first time. Unfortunately, the concept of “bug”-free software was alien to most programmers of that era. Programming was a fully iterative process of removing errors. Even so, many “bugs” would carry over into a delivered product due to unsophisticated testing techniques. Errors found before a particular system of rope was complete could be fixed at the factory58, but most others had to be endured. Raytheon, the subcontractor that built the ropes, could eliminate hardwiring errors introduced during manufacture by testing the rope modules against the….


Figure 2-1.

Figure 2-1. This diagram shows the principle behind core rope. Suppose that the data shown above the cores in the drawing is to be stored in the specific core. Thus 1000 is stored in the first core on the left by attaching the top wire from the select circuit to the core and bypassing it with the next three wires. When that core is selected for reading, the wire attached to the core will indicate a “one” because all cores in a rope are permanently charged as ones; the wires bypassing the core will indicate zeroes.

… tape of the programs. The company built a device to do this59.




Production Problems and Testing

Development and production of the Apollo guidance, navigation, and control system reflected the overall speed of the Apollo program. Design of the system began in the second quarter of 1961, and NASA installed a Block I version in a spacecraft on September 22, 1965. Release of the original software (named CORONA) was in January 1966, with the first flight on August 25, 1966 60. Less than 3 years after that, designers achieved the final program objective. Even though fewer than two dozen spacecraft flew, NASA authorized the building of 75 computers and 138 DSKYs. Fifty-seven of the computers and 102 of the crew interfaces were of the Block II design 61. This represents a considerable production for a special-purpose computer of the type used in Apollo. The need to quickly build high-quality, high-reliability computers taxed the abilities of Raytheon.


Through AC Electronic Circuits (contractor for the entire guidance system), Raytheon was chosen to build the computers MIT had designed largely because of its Polaris experience, but it had [40] never built a computer as complex as the one for Apollo. The Polaris machine was much simpler. Despite the use of experienced Polaris personnel, Raytheon’s production division for the Apollo computer went from 800 to 2,000 employees in a year’s time in order to handle the increased difficulties and speed of production62.


Rapid growth, underestimation of production requirements, and reliability problems dogged Raytheon throughout the program. Changes in design made by MIT in late 1962 caused the company its initial trouble. The original request for proposal had featured Polaris techniques, so Raytheon bid low, expecting to use the same tools and production line for the Apollo machine. The changes in component types and memory size caused cost estimates to nearly double, resulting in considerable friction with NASA63. NASA was also worried when two computers and fully 50% of the Block I DSKYs failed vibration tests64. These failures turned out to be largely caused by contaminated flat packs and DSKY relays. Particles would shake loose during vibration testing65. The Block II computers would not work at first due to excessive signal propagation time in the micrologic interconnection matrix. The solution was to switch from nickel ribbon connectors to a circuit board, causing an increase of $500,000 in production costs66.


These sorts of problems caused the Manned Spacecraft Center to authorize a complete design review of the AGC in February 1966. The lack of adequate support documentation was found to be the most significant fault of the Block II computer67. This sort of problem is usually the result of speeding up development to the point at which changes are not adequately documented.


Continuous and careful attention to reliability led to the discovery of problems. Builders flight-screened components lot by lot68. Post-production hardware tests included vibration, shock, acceleration, temperature, vacuum, humidity, salt fog, and electronic noise.69 As D.C. Fraser, an engineer on the project, later remarked, “reliability of the Apollo computer was bought with money” 70.

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