Project History: Apollo Guidance Computer

The Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) was the main control system on the spacecraft which went to the moon. It performed both automatic and manual (fly-by-wire) control of the command module as well as the lunar lander. The film Apollo 13 shows how frequently the astronauts relied on the AGC for a wide variety of tasks. The AGC included an inertial guidance system (similar to that on a missile) which was interfaced to numerous other devices through a digital computer. It was built at Draper Labs during the 1960s by many of the same people who appear in MacKenzie’s book, and included the radical new technology of integrated circuits. It was quite an effort for the Draper group to convince NASA to accept a digital computer at all, and especially one using integrated circuits. This project consumed virtually the entire industrial output of integrated circuits in the U.S. for several years.

The project history will deal with material in the Draper Laboratories Library, which includes numerous technical reports and discussion of various aspects of the AGC design. Furthermore, many of the engineers who worked on the design are still around and willing to talk to students.

Possible themes: acceptance of radical new technologies, development of digital real-time control, systems engineering as both technical and organizational activities, relationship between fabrication techniques and architecture, role of large projects in spurring market activity, role of the human beings in automatic control systems,

 

Engineering Concentrations: Comm., Control, & Signal Processing, Computer Systems & Architecture

Secondary Sources:

Apollo 13 film, dir. Ron Howard

The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe

Aiming at Targets, by Robert Seamans

Apollo: The Race to the Moon, by Charles Murray & Catherine Bly Cox

Inventing Accuracy, by Donald MacKenzie

The Apollo Guidance Computer by Eldon C. Hall

Beyond the Limits Paul Ceruzzi

Archival Sources:

Draper Laboratories archive, see document list.

Possible Contacts / Interviews:

Richard Battin, ex. Draper

Robert Seamans, MIT, Draper student, General manager at NASA

Linda Petkunas, Draper librarian

David Hoag, Draper head engineer

Tom Sheridan, MIT, human factors design on AGC

Eldon Hall, computer design at Draper, wrote a book on AGC