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Pondering the Mac and the Moon

July 20th, 2009, marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and the first human steps made on extraterrestrial soil. While a lot of attention is being paid to the three men who made the trip - and the two who left their boot prints in the surface - my inner geek is once again in awe of the scientists and the sheer volume of effort that accomplished what seemed impossible.

How does this event relate to the Mac? Comparing the space program to Apple is tenuous at best, I admit. But I've long felt that in our current Earth-bound (with very few exceptions) existence, Apple shares some of the same ambitious engineering spirit that guided the Gemini and Apollo missions.

Apple has vision, and works to achieve that vision, even when people think it's misguided. Take the current line of MacBook Pros: While other companies continue making prettier plastic enclosures, Apple engineered the unibody case design that increases the laptop's rigidity without adding weight and simplifies the number of components that make up the computer.

Or look at the iPhone, introduced at a high price point into a saturated market, seemingly without much chance for success. Apple innovated with software, shaking up people's ideas of what a mobile phone could do. Now, the iPhone is a huge success and is making established phone manufacturers reevaluate their often lackluster handsets.

I won't stretch these analogies too far. After all, Apple's software, like all commercial software, is far more brittle than the massively redundant systems required to put spacecraft into the black. But as we look back at the achievements and technologies of 40 years ago, I see not only amazing feats of engineering, but also the inspiration for today's hardware and software, created by people whose parents and colleagues put humans on the Moon and brought them safely back to Earth.

As you ponder the moon landing, visit the following resources to learn more about Apollo 11 and the universe we live in.

Space-Bound for a Penny -- To celebrate the moon landing, Carina Software is making its astronomy software available for 1 cent, only on 20-Jul-09. SkyGazer 4.5, normally $29.95, is an introductory version for casual users; Voyager 4.5, normally $99.95, is the company's advanced version. Both require Mac OS X (Windows versions are also available).

SkyVoyager for iPhone and SkyGazer for iPhone (both iTunes links) are also available free of charge from the App Store for the day.

We Choose the Moon -- We Choose the Moon, a presentation of the John F. Kennedy Library, has been re-enacting the Apollo 11 mission from launch to first lunar step in real time with ground-to-spacecraft communications, animations, video from the period, photos, and more. The project has also set up three Twitter addresses reproducing the communications between Houston and Apollo 11; so if you can't afford to be glued to the Web site for several days, you can still experience via text the conversations that passed between thousands of miles of space.

Giant Apollo 11 Reference -- Jason Kottke's "The giant Apollo 11 post" collects an impressive array of online media and information about Apollo 11.

Tech Derived from Space Travel -- NASA Spinoffs is an older Web site (last updated in 2004), but it gives you a sense of some of today's technologies that owe their genesis to NASA research.

In the Shadow of the Moon -- I saw a screening of "In the Shadow of the Moon" at the Seattle International Film Festival in 2007 and highly recommend that you rent, buy (iTunes Store link), or stream it. A documentary about the Apollo 11 program, it includes previously unpublished footage and some true gems: While doing research at NASA, the director and his assistants found separate audio and video recordings of ground conversations in Houston to the spacecraft, and synced them up so you get to see and hear the people speaking the transmissions.

The movie also contains one amazing shot with an equally amazing story behind it. We've all seen footage of rocket stages separating, showing the spent fuel canister falling away toward Earth from the point of view of the spacecraft headed into space. Instead, in one 2 minute sequence, you see the two components separating, but from the viewpoint of a camera mounted inside the booster. The spacecraft zooms away, then the angle of the sunlight gradually changes as the piece starts its slow tumble back to the atmosphere. (View the clip in a segment at YouTube, starting at the 5:50 mark.)

According to director David Sington during a question-and-answer session following the screening I attended, the camera was rigged to eject itself before the booster burned up in the atmosphere (you can see a brief zoom at the end of the clip). To retrieve the camera, NASA equipped several planes with giant trailing nets that flew patterns in the areas where it was likely to descend.


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Comments about Pondering the Mac and the Moon
(Comments are closed.)

Jeff Okamoto  2009-07-20 10:48
This is great news, but Carina's web site still lists the software at full price.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-07-20 11:02
They're showing a "Temporarily Disabled" tags on the online download purchase, due to using too much bandwidth. Hopefully they'll resolve the situation today! (The iPhone apps still seem to be free with no trouble.)
Gus S. Calabrese Denver , CO  2009-07-21 03:25
Why are you celebrating 40 years of disappointing non-performance by NASA ? I wanted to walk on Mars #$@%^ and now it looks like I never will. Hooray for private space efforts ; close NASA ; Sell NASA assets to space pirates ; and government LACKEYs .... get out of the way !
Jeff Carlson  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-07-21 09:25
Here's another space-related deal commemorating the moon landing: Open Door Networks is giving away their Astronaut Envi iPhone app an extra day! Here's the iTunes link: http://itunes.com/app/astronautenvi
Andrew Dont Kidnap Me, I Dont Program Rockets  2009-07-21 10:49
Hello, one tidbit not mentioned in this article is that Apple's first Mac used the Motorolla 68000, which was also used by NASA.

I learned this from my Dad, who wrote the software that got the men off the moon, back in the middle 1980's when I was begging him to buy me a computer (IBM, Mac, I didn't care); unfortunately my paper route money, and other work I did, couldn't add up to $5,000 they cost.

My Dad was impressed by Apple and their choice, but, as he often said, "they are using a 32 bit microprocessor, but only a 16 bit data bus." I also remember him saying at one of the Sears-IBM stores, "I am NOT paying $5,000 for an 8 bit computer!"

Ironically, even though he saw the transition of computers as vacuum tube analog devices to digital, he was the last person in our family to buy a computer.