Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, who captivated the imaginations of Earth’s population when he took the first human step onto the moon in 1969, died Aug. 25, but his death didn’t pass without a poignant technology note from two staff members with Google’s Inside Search blog.
“The two of us are old enough to remember the thrill of seeing Neil Armstrong walk on the moon in the summer of 1969,” wrote Udi Manber and Peter Norvig on Inside Search. “Many things have changed since then, and incredible progress has been made in some areas. As we reflect back on our own experience, and try to match today’s world to 1969, we decided to compare the amount of computation available to NASA engineers then versus what’s available now.”
So just how much have things changed technologically since July 20, 1969, when Armstrong took the first true moonwalk?
It’s actually quite amazing to comprehend. That computer on your desktop, or the laptop in your gear bag or even the cell phone in your pocket are each more powerful than the complex computers that were used in that Apollo mission. Compared with the computers of today, we essentially sent men to the moon using cardboard, string and chewing gum.
“The Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) on board the lunar module (LM) executed instructions at a speed of about 40KHz (or 0.00004GHz), about 100,000 times slower than a high-end laptop today,” wrote Manber and Norvig.
Did you read that last line?
The guidance computer on the Apollo 11 moon lander executed its instructions “about 100,000 times slower than a high-end laptop today.”
We have certainly come a long way.
A similar real-time computer was also built into the huge and powerful Saturn V booster rocket that thrust the entire Apollo spacecraft into orbit, from its command module to the lunar module to the multiple rocket stages that were required to get it out of the pull of Earth’s orbit.
“On the ground, NASA had access to some of the most powerful computers of the day: five IBM model 360/75 mainframe computers, each about 250 times faster than the AGC,” wrote Manber and Norvig. “They were running nearly 24/7, calculating lift-off data and orbits, monitoring biomedical data during the mission, and performing numerous other calculations.”
So then Manber and Norvig did what any curious technology geek would do-they compared that 1969 technology, which was state-of-the-art at that time, to the computing power that’s generated today in a single Google search.
What they found is also quite amazing.
“It takes about the same amount of computing to answer one Google Search query as all the computing done-in flight and on the ground-for the entire Apollo program!” they wrote. “When you enter a single query in the Google search box, or just speak it to your phone, you set in motion as much computing as it took to send Neil Armstrong and 11 other astronauts to the moon. Not just the actual flights, but all the computing done throughout the planning and execution of the 11-year, 17-mission Apollo program.”
“That’s how much computing has advanced,” wrote Manber and Norvig. “It is easy to take this for granted, but this computing power helps make the world a better place and opens the door for amazing things to come.”
For this writer, or likely anyone else who was alive on July 20, 1969, watching the grainy television images at the moment when Armstrong took the first human step onto the moon was an absolutely amazing sight. It occurred before computers came to be an integral part of our everyday lives at home, at work and in school.
What was amazing technologically then is as “simple” today as running a Google search for “manned spaceflight.”
Armstrong, who was 82, died of complications from heart surgery he underwent earlier in August.
The wonder of his first moon walk and the dramatic changes in technology since then will continue to provide amazing contrasts that are sure to be followed by the next changes in technology to come.