Danielle Applestone: On the afternoon of July 20th, 1969, some 400 million people were fixed on a single world changing event. None more intently than the engineers of Draper Lab at MIT whose work on Apollo guidance systems was being put to the test a quarter million miles away. It was not an afternoon for the faint of heart. Seven minutes before touching down on the moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin reported a 1202 program alarm.
NASA Apollo 11 clip: 1202. Standby. 1202.
Danielle Applestone: The astronauts had memorized and trained for countless alarms, but neither knew this one. As lunar module commander, Armstrong didn’t have time to learn it.
NASA Apollo 11 clip: Give us a reading on the 1202 program alarm. Roger, we got you. We’re go on that alarm.
Danielle Applestone: The onboard computer on the lunar excursion module or LEM had overloaded. Tempting though it is to snicker at 50 year old technology, the LEMs onboard computer was a miracle of engineering. Developed at MIT and led by pioneering software engineer, Margaret Hamilton, it was an ingenious system designed to communicate with 150 devices within the spacecraft. So good was that early computer that it knew how to dump bad information and reassign the most critical operations and quickly enough that vital guidance data wasn’t lost. Despite a steady stream of overloads, it saved the mission.
NASA Apollo 11 clip: The alarm, it appears to come up when we have a 16-
Danielle Applestone: Apollo 11 managed to touch down with less than 30 seconds worth of fuel remaining.
NASA Apollo 11 clip: Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.
Danielle Applestone: NASA and Draper’s team of engineers let out a collective sigh of relief.
NASA Apollo 11 clip: Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.
Danielle Applestone: A half century later in their Cambridge, Massachusetts headquarters, another generation of Draper engineers is helping shape a whole new chapter in space travel. Like their storied predecessors, they’re working to enable precise guidance navigation for a lunar mission, this one slated for 2024. But there the similarities end. This chapter in space travel won’t just be a bigger, faster, stronger version of Apollo.
NASA Apollo 11 clip: Three, two, one, and lift off.
Danielle Applestone: I’m Danielle Applestone, engineer and entrepreneur. And I find the very concept of space fascinating. As you’re about to learn this time the vision and the people are vastly different. And the tools they’ll use are no less mind blowing today than a 70 pound computer was in 1969. You’re listening to Technology Powers X, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.
“I am and ever will be,” Neil Armstrong once confessed, “a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer.” Five decades later at Indiana’s Purdue University, just a short flight West from Armstrong’s home state of Ohio, Armstrong’s pioneering spirit is alive and well in Jasmine Singh, double major in planetary science and atmospheric science.
Jasmine Singh: As for a fun fact about space, there are actually more stars in the universe than all the grains of sand on earth on every single beach. It’s mind boggling to think about.
Danielle Applestone: Jasmine wasted no time setting her career vector and she’ll have no trouble taking her place among 21st century aerospace scientists, but she admits it might never have happened if the moon hadn’t followed her home.
Jasmine Singh: So I always knew that I had a passion for space ever since I was little. I can’t really give it an exact age. I would say around 10 years old, but I just, I knew I was always fascinated by it because whenever we’d ride in the car at night, I would kind of stare at the moon and I used to think that it would like follow us home because you can always look at it from the car window.
Danielle Applestone: So Jasmine Singh begins with the same cranial toolbox as the scientists and engineers of old, but the tools at her disposal help set her and her generation apart. Back at Draper, those tools are helping teams set their sights on the moon, this time with private partners leading the way. The first of thousands of obstacles is a question. Why go back to the moon?
Kim Slater: Yeah. A lot of people do ask that. Why go back to the moon?
Danielle Applestone: Kim Slater manages commercial and civil space programs for Draper.
Kim Slater: We did that 50 years ago and certainly Draper was a big part of the Apollo missions 50 years ago. Most people ask the question, “Why do we go back to the moon because it’s expensive?” And the answer is it’s true. Space exploration is expensive. But if somebody asks me, “Why go back to the moon?” My question back to them is, “What if we don’t?” This is this concept of, if we believe in learning more about our universe and the origins of our own planet and our own humanity, we need to explore deeper into the universe to learn more about ourselves.
Danielle Applestone: Talking to Kim Slater, you soon realize that the moon isn’t really the destination.
Kim Slater: The moon really is a waystation for further exploration. Back in the Apollo days, the mission was, “Let’s get to the moon and plant a flag and leave footprints on the surface.” The new moon missions going back in 2024 are to go back with a man and a woman this time, but also to stay. We’re not going there to leave a footprint and wave and take a picture and come back to earth. We’re going to build an infrastructure so that we can build a community on the moon and then use that station as a transition point for Mars and further into the universe. So it really becomes the way our space station is in low earth orbit around the earth now, the moon and the space around the moon will become another waystation for us to get a little farther away and use that as a launching point to get to Mars and other places.
Danielle Applestone: It’s worth saying how not easy all of that is. Like the early NASA missions, these goals come with a long list of never been dones, requiring equipment and techniques not yet invented. One key difference is what today’s technology and devices allow them to do.
Vanessa Bryan: Oh, wow. I’m not sure you can even compare the technology.
Danielle Applestone: Vanessa Bryan is director of client services and the project management office for the information services group at Draper.
Vanessa Bryan: Thinking about size alone of computers we can now fit so much more compute power, including robotics in a space shuttle, helping them guide the mission and collect information. And we can take human element out of the today that never could be done 50 years ago.
Danielle Applestone: On more than one occasion, the human element saved the Apollo 11 mission. Moments from touchdown on the moon with 1202 program alarm sounding, Neil Armstrong noticed something wrong with the terrain below. The LEM was about to land on the ridge of a crater, an area littered with boulders the size of cars. With fuel running out Armstrong instructed the computer to guide the LEM to a flatter surface. To Kim Slater, it was proof of the need for seamless interaction between astronaut and technology.
Kim Slater: It was Draper guidance and technology software that helped with that guidance and really brought the vehicle close to the surface of the moon, but it also took Neil Armstrong’s eye to look out the window and see the surface of the moon closer and better than anyone had ever seen it before and use his own brain and his own judgment to carefully land on the moon with manual controls.
Danielle Applestone: That was then. Today, Draper is designing precision guidance and navigation systems to spot trouble and make adjustments.
Kim Slater: If you can imagine, here we are in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Draper is right across the river from Boston and we look across the river at the Citgo sign and Fenway Park. The precision with which Apollo landed on the moon was similar to let’s land in Boston. And let’s hope our accuracy is way better than Boston, but let’s land in an area about the size of Boston city proper. The technology we’re using today has precision of, “Yeah, we like Boston, but let’s aim for Fenway Park,” and with all of the simulations for doing on the ground that helped that landing become more predictable and more robust, we’re aiming at home plate. So we’re aiming at Fenway Park, but all of the precision guidance systems are letting us land with so much more accuracy. We can feel much better and safe about the landings we’re making on the moon.
Danielle Applestone: Vast improvements in camera technology combined with AI will allow future landing craft to do automatically what the self-professed nerdy engineer had to do manually.
Kim Slater: Something like a camera that used to be big and heavy and take single photos of something. Now we’ve got tiny little cameras that can take fast moving video at really high resolution, and it can see really cool things. And the software in it can discern whether those things are mountains or valleys or molehills. So as a vehicle is coming closer to the surface of the moon, something with the power, not much more than what you have in your cell phone can watch as we’re landing on the moon. And instead of needing massive computers and vehicles and rockets to do all of those controls, we’ve come so far that the computers and cameras and other instruments can help us land much more safely and without an astronaut on board. So imagine these really articulate computers and amazing software can help us get to the surface of the moon and land with a vehicle with no astronaut onboard safely and carefully with excellent precision. We’ll know exactly where that vehicle lands so that when the next one comes, we can start building around that and adding new features and expanding our presence on the surface of the moon.
Danielle Applestone: Freeing astronauts to concentrate on exploration and discovery is at the heart of Draper’s work in space systems. A key to creating that freedom is simulations. There’s a phrase that crops up in space engineering, failure of imagination. It’s the inability to imagine and anticipate any given problem. That’s where simulations come in. Leveraging the power of Dell devices and technology, Draper’s teams combine human imagination with AI. This allows them to play out an almost inexhaustible list of what ifs. Kim Slater.
Kim Slater: So what we do is create really extravagant simulation systems on the ground, and we use heavy duty computers and processors to make sure that the simulations we do really emulate what a lunar landing would look like. And with that, we can keep tweaking our software and hardware until we’re really convinced that the system works well and it’s ready for launch to the moon. The Dell computers we use at Draper help support all of the validation and simulation work we do on the ground. So you can imagine when you land on the moon, you don’t have a whole lot of rehearsals before you do that. There is no dress rehearsal. You get there and you better be sure you’re doing it well. It’s expensive. It’s high risk.
Danielle Applestone: This is where Dell devices rise to the challenge. According to Sylvia Seybel, Vice President of Commercial PC Product Marketing at Dell Technologies.
Sylvia Seybel: They are expecting a seamless performance. When you run these models, it’s a lot of data and it takes time. You don’t want to start a workload and then have to wait 30 minutes before it comes back. So speed and performance is really what is top of mind for all of these employees.
Danielle Applestone: And what sort of team is pushing that needle? Today, Draper’s engineering team bears many similarities to those who worked on Apollo. One vital difference, it’s diversity.
Kim Slater: I imagine the engineers of the Apollo days were brilliant and dedicated and singularly dedicated to getting us to the moon. I think we’re probably more similar now than different. I think we certainly have a more diverse population of engineers and in any kind of science and technology, I believe diversity of thought brings us the best solution. So I do think as a community, we’ve got that benefit.
Danielle Applestone: Interest in space exploration leveled off after those early moon missions, but new space initiatives are attracting scores of young engineering minds. With new aerospace companies competing for talent, how can they attract the best and the brightest? Inviting them to be part of a moon mission is a good start, but retaining that talent is a job in and of itself. A key to this is providing them with the devices they need to efficiently run simulations and do their jobs effectively. Vanessa Bryan.
Vanessa Bryan: Our role in IT is to enable the engineers to do their jobs like engaging in the lunar missions. And we need to ensure that we’re partnering with them, listening to them, what their requirements are. About a year and a half ago our standard offering was a Latitude and an OptiPlex and where we continued to see folks asking for nonstandard upgrades. We started introducing tiered standards for Precision workstations, as well as Precision laptop, giving them the affordability to do their jobs from anywhere. What IT’s accomplished by standardizing on the Precision line is we’ve given our engineers the ability to perform their project work of extensive simulation.
Danielle Applestone: With advanced tools comes advanced expectations. A space mission might once have reached space 15 years after getting the green light. The current lunar project was announced in 2019, just five years before the proposed mission date. And when you equip engineers with the right devices, it makes it possible to work within such tight timelines. Sylvia Seybel.
Sylvia Seybel: One out of four employees, they state that negative technology experiences would impact career decisions. So really critical that we deliver the performance to the employees and deliver the right experience so that is a positive experience and will therefore also impact their career decisions to stay with Draper.
Danielle Applestone: State of the art computers might’ve wowed engineers of the 1960s, but to a new generation world-class devices are table stakes.
Sylvia Seybel: They’re getting younger and younger. They grew up with technology. They grow up with their phones. They are just used to things just working. And so for them, it’s even a bigger problem if technology is too slow or technology goes down, technology is not reliable enough. It’s a really critical factor for the morale of employees to have the technology, the right technology at the right time at the right performance.
Danielle Applestone: As with the Apollo era, the best minds properly equipped are rekindling the world’s romance with space travel. Kim Slater.
Kim Slater: The things we know are interesting, but science and exploration really help us explore that which we don’t know. And space to me was always that sort of final frontier. It was, “Where can we go explore and learn things we don’t even know how to learn yet?”
Danielle Applestone: A fringe benefit of exploring the unknown is serendipity.
Kim Slater: I think what I love about any of these exploration missions is you can have teams of scientists and engineers set out to solve certain problems or explore certain things. And what you often learn are the things you didn’t set out to look for. To me, that’s the most exciting part of our research.
Danielle Applestone: Jasmine Singh, the Purdue University student is psyched.
Jasmine Singh: What most excites me, not only the fact that we’re going back to the moon and we’re actually putting a woman on the moon as well, what also excites me about our upcoming lunar mission in 2024 is that our technology has just vastly improved since the last time we went to the moon in I think it was 1972.
Danielle Applestone: Not only is that technology improving, Kim Slater has learned that it’s never a barrier.
Kim Slater: I will say that in my entire career, the challenges have never been engineering challenges. Any problem we’ve been faced with, I have seen scientists and engineers rise to an occasion and come to an articulate solution. I’ve never had engineering be the reason we couldn’t do something.
Danielle Applestone: Not so long ago, Jasmine Singh doubted that humans would ever travel to Mars. With the moon as a staging ground, that goal is becoming more real. Considering the minds, the machines and the devices available to space explorers today, technology may soon even outpace the human imagination. This is Technology Powers X, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. For more information on Dell Latitude, Precision & OptiPlex go to DellTechnologies.com/TechnologyPowersX. You can read the transcript, learn more about our speakers and check out some great links. I’m Danielle Applestone. Thank you for listening.