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).
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.