Blog

07.16.2019

From Apollo to Artemis, Part 1: Maxar on the Moon in the 1960s

By: Maxar Technologies


Read Time: 7 minutes

Editor's note: Maxar corporate heritage can be traced to Philco-Ford Corporation in the 1960s. Philco-Ford played a role in every manned Mercury, Gemini and Apollo flight. This blog post looks at the company's contributions to the Apollo 11 mission.

“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

These are quite possibly the two most famous phrases to come from NASA’s Apollo missions. Astronaut Neil Armstrong radioed both comments back to Earth during the first landing on the moon during Apollo 11. But how did these communications get heard around the world?

Apollo 11 mission patch. Image credit: NASA.

NASA awarded Philco-Ford the prime contract in 1963 to design and implement NASA’s new Mission Control Center (MCC) in Houston. Once deemed “the nerve center for man’s greatest adventure―command and control of Apollo 11 from liftoff to the moon to splashdown,” the MCC served as NASA’s Earth control for the Gemini and Apollo missions starting with Gemini 4 in June 1965. About 1,000 Philco-Ford employees supported the MCC. When the astronauts talked to “Houston,” they were talking to flight controllers in the MCC.

Image above: NASA’s MCC was located in the windowless three-story operations wing of Building 30 at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. It contained two control centers allowing NASA to either direct two simulated missions at the same time or one real mission and one simulated operation simultaneously.

To meet the goal of getting a man on the moon in the 1960s, NASA needed a major computer-assisted decision-making capability on Earth so they could land astronauts on the moon―and that technology didn’t exist at the time. Philco-Ford received the $34 million contract to make it happen in 1963 and delivered the MCC system two years later.

The MCC system provided a workable way to process many kinds of vital information from billions of bits of incoming and stored reference data, then selectively display the information in real-time to the screens of flight controllers and system monitors in MCC. At the time, it improved man-to-machine communications in mission control in ways that exceeded the average person’s imagination, and it got even more complicated by the time of the Apollo 11 mission. Here are some facts and figures about the MCC and its operators in 1969:

  • More than 1,500 different types of telemetry data―from the condition of the astronauts to the results of various tests carried out during a mission―flowed into the MCC from NASA’s global network of tracking stations during an Apollo flight.
  • The MCC housed the largest assembly of television switching equipment in the world at the time.
  • MCC contained some 1,200 cabinets of electrical and electronic equipment, 140 command consoles, 160 cameras, 561 TV displays, 61 digital-to-TV converters and more than 60,000 miles of wire.

This system was first used in the MCC’s monitoring of the Gemini 3 mission in March 1965 and became an operational reality three months later during Gemini 4 when the first American walked in space. Philco-Ford and NASA scientists, engineers and technicians made improvements and updated the system continuously for each subsequent mission through Project Apollo.

The MCC celebrates Apollo 11 splashing down on July 24, 1969. Image credit: NASA.

After MCC was developed, other industries put the technology to use in myriad ways: in state and municipal water and sewage systems on the West Coast; in gas and electric utility energy control centers; in new flight information display systems at the Houston and Jacksonville, Florida airports; in factory monitoring and communication systems at Ford; and in the communications subsystem for the billion-dollar Bay Area Rapid Transit District in San Francisco. The Philadelphia School District even used the technology to teach students reading and biology.

Lunar Science Experiments

Image above: Lunar surface experiments were performed in this room in NASA’s MCC by Philco-Ford personnel. The seismic recorders on the right were so sensitive they could detect the footsteps of astronauts on the moon. Philco Houston employees from left to right at the control consoles: Ed Turpin, Jack Hill and James Omoto.

Additionally, NASA contracted Philco-Ford and IBM to build the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP) program and then monitor and control it starting with the Apollo 11 mission. The engineers and scientists designed the seismic and environmental measuring instruments to stay on the moon and send scientific data from the moon to the MCC via radio signals. Solar cells powered the instruments, which only worked during the lunar day―about 14.5 Earth days. ALSEP detected events like moonquakes, other lunar tremors and meteorite impacts.

Image above: A Philco-Ford employee holds the transmitter for the ALSEP, which astronauts left behind on the moon to send scientific data to receiving stations here on Earth.

Beyond the MCC - Additional Apollo Contributions

  • Mapping the moon: Philco-Ford built a 16-foot diameter radio telescope for the University of Texas under a NASA contract to map potential landing sites on the moon.
  • Designing the Lunar Module: In 1964, Philco-Ford received a contract to assign 23 of its engineers to Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corp.’s instrumentation subsystem team in Bethpage, N.Y. The Philco-Ford engineers provided research and development services for the prototype, test and production models of the lunar module.
  • Lunar landing training: Philco-Ford employees supported NASA in pre-flight planning for lunar landing training vehicle operations, including operating vehicle control consoles during simulations and test flights by astronaut Neil Armstrong in preparation for Apollo 11.
  • Apollo spacecraft hardware: Philco-Ford provided 4,800 integrated circuits for navigation and guidance computers in the command module and the lunar lander, nuclear particle detection systems designed to protect the astronauts during space flight, and diodes, other semiconductors and engineering design services for the lunar module.

From Space to Televisions

Philco-Ford also applied the technological developments from its work for NASA and the Department of Defense to consumer goods. The engineers and scientists spent billions of hours testing semiconductors and refining manufacturing processes for Apollo missions. This work allowed them to bring color television sets to market years ahead of schedule. By 1959, Philco-Ford had an all-transistor television receiver on the market. In 1969, after further work on transistors, Philco-Ford introduced a new, 13-inch screen TV set that fit on a six-inch shelf, skinny by then-current standards thanks to a Philco-Ford innovation in the picture tube. Philco-Ford company documents stated, “A flat picture-frame configuration [for a TV] would be the ultimate in screens”―a dream that has become a reality thanks to technology developed for the Apollo missions.

Maxar’s contributions to the Apollo missions and the moon landing helped inspire the world to consider the possibilities of space. As we approach the next phase of moon landings with the Artemis program, Maxar looks forward to building the first piece of NASA’s lunar Gateway, the Power and Propulsion Element, which will play a key role in sending the first woman and the next man to the Moon in 2024 and enable future crewed missions to Mars. NASA has also selected Maxar to deliver a robotic arm for use on the Moon that will be used to acquire samples of lunar regolith. Part 2 of this blog series explores how our innovations for the Artemis program will impact life on Earth.

Back to Blog

Email Subscription