Computers and Space Exploration

When individuals think of space exploration, they think of the stars of the show such as Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon; or perhaps John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth. However; those individuals do not ponder on the fact that the behind the scenes components of NASA are the most important factors that led to Global Exploration of the universe unknown. These behind the scenes components are computers. From the human computers who aided in John Glenn’s rotation around the earth, to the newest Linux operating systems; space travel has benefited due to these technological advancements.

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When NASA was founded in 1958, the most common computer was known as UNIVAC. According to NASA, UNIVAC was a collection of spinning tape drives, noisy printers and featureless boxes that were contained in a large room. Though these massive computers were expensive to handle and required a group of people to man each one, these machines became wildly popular within NASA. Though the size of the computers changed in the next decade, these computers still played the same role in exploring extraterrestrial terrain. Meanwhile an IBM 705 computer at IBM’s Vanguard Computing Center helped in the launching and the tracking of the first non – Soviet satellite in space, Explorer 1. The IBM 705 contained a processing system with a magnetic tape computer that could make over a million logical decisions per minute. However computers were not even in existence for some of the most important events in the space race.

Before the use of computers, women known as human computers analyzed the data coming in from the wind tunnel tests as well as the flight tests. The most influential human computer was Katherine Johnson. Katherine Johnson joined NACA in the year 1953 as a computer. From that time until 1958, Johnson analyzed topics like gust alleviation for aircraft. In 1958, NASA replaced NACA, but the goals of both companies were similar: to get Americans involved in the space race. Katherine Johnson had a key role in this from 1958 to her retirement in 1986. Her most accomplishment could be seen as helping John Glenn prepare to orbit the earth in 1962. Glenn’s orbit was the first time NASA was using electronics computers, so they had Johnson verify that all the numbers were correct; or else Glenn would not fly. Katherine Johnson continued her work at NASA calculating trajectories, working in the space shuttle program, and even on plans for a mission to mars before her retirement. Human Computers like Mrs. Johnson truly set the stage for the Technology Revolution in NASA that was yet to come.

From the human computers and UNIVAC, NASA then progressed into more complex computer systems, as they were trying to land a man on the moon. The computers used during the Apollo 11 mission were known as the Apollo Guidance Computers. These computers contained a real time operating system, which astronauts could use to control the aircraft simply by punching in a code of nouns or verbs. The computer was more basic than a computer in a toaster and only had approximately 64Kbyte of memory and operated at 0.043MHz. The AGC was fault tolerant and was able to run several programs in the order of importance. The AGC is a key aspect to the development of the integrated circuit and known as the first embedded computer. The AGC provided the precision needed to navigate and control the spacecraft to get to the moon and back safely, not relying on a computer system from earth. By 1976 the international space shuttle was established and the USA was known as the most prominent space figure in the world. In Palisades, California the Enterprise, the first vehicle in the Space Shuttle Program, was debuted containing flight computers and special hardware constructed by IBM Federal Systems Division. The enterprise was used as test machine for NASA, as it did not contain engines or a heat shield. Enterprise was designed to land on earth as a dead stick, meaning that the pilots would pilot using computer aide, as it was not powered. Computers have further evolutioned from the past, as they are prone to change Space Exploration as well as mankind in the present and the future to come.

Presently, NASA has recently changed their computer software system from Windows to Linux. This was due to NASA wanting to have a software system that was not only reliable and secure, but also one they could easily control. In addition to that ISS Laptops are prone to make the switch due to viruses spread on Windows Software System. The switch will fully protect the computers from future infection. The laptops upgraded belong to the OpsLand. The astronauts are being trained by the Linux Foundation on how to work apps and how to manage the new computer software system. In the future, NASA hopes to make it to Mars, and has equipped technology able to survive life on Mars with the help of computers. In the spring, NASA hopes to put a rover on Mars in order to understand the origin of planets. This rover will feature two new technological advancements. The Heat Flow Probe and a Hypersensitive Seismometer will assist NASA in determining more about where Mars was derived from. On Mars, a robotic hand will be able to control the rover, further progressing from human control. Tools are being sent from Technology Powerhouses from all over the world. The two technological advancements, as well as computers, will help us see if there are factors, like whether there is water under the surface of the planet, that could lead to possible human survival on Mars in the near future. The robot is expected to travel a seven month voyage, starting this May and ending with the descent in November of this year. To descend the robot on Mars, a series of computerized events will occur including the launching of a rocket followed by the opening of a parachute to carry the rover down to Mars. The way things are looking right now, the computers of the future will be more beneficial to mankind than as a source for social media updates or even how to videos on Youtube. The computers of the future will be used to find extraterrestrial life beyond our planet, keep the Space Shuttle running; and who knows, maybe even populate a colony on Mars.

Computers are used for multiple things in our world such as DMing on Instagram, binge watching that show you just can’t get enough of, and writing your research paper. However computers are used for more than everyday things for the greater good. Computers, whether the Human Computers to 1960s to the Rovers on Mars, have influenced space travel tremendously and proven to us anything is possible. Computers have provided us with not only information on everything we possibly need to know, but also hope. If you were to go back in time and explain what computers were capable of today, people would think you were crazy. Furthermore, now that we know what computers can do today, we know we can expect a positive as well as exciting outcome for the future. That is why computers are the REAL stars of space exploration.

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Computers and Space Exploration. (2019, Jul 08). Retrieved June 29, 2022 , from
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