Today, 16th July, my birthday, we celebrate 40 years to the day since NASA took off for the moon. I was twelve years old, and greatly regret that I wasn't able to personally witness a Saturn VB lift off. I did go to Cape Canaveral for the 30th anniversary though.
The Saturn VB has some six million parts. It was the heaviest and fastest moving machine ever built. It was incredibly reliable and that means it must have been extremely well designed and thoroughly tested. The moon programe employed about 400,000 dedicated, serious people who individually and collectively ensured that man got to the moon - and even more significantly for me - back safely again. Everything about the moon-mission technology is deeply impressive - example: read the whole BBC article about the core memory - long since abandoned for semiconductor memory. Not glamorous, but it did the job - and reliably too. To think, from this link, that the LEM programmer was just 11 or 12 years older than me! BBC. As he says, the 'computer' has a mere 76kB of memory (a typical PC has about 13 times as much memory) and as he says, every byte of code was minimalist in the extreme. That's good programing.
One aspect of the moon story that's sadly never reported is the human drama of the designers and manufacturers of the hardware (and software). What was on their mind that woke them in a sweat at 4am? What were they thinking during the launch and mission about the potential for their component to malfunction - and with what consequences? How much psychological and physical stress were they under and how close to the edge of their knowledge envelope were they working? I've often promised myself that I'd take a month off to meet those very people behind the hardware to get their story, for the record.
The other side to this story not reported is the mindboggling complexity of its project management. In an age when we are all too familiar with the failure of government projects which fail to deliver as intended, are massively over-budget despite all the consultants and computing power thrown at them, it is surely incredible that forty years ago a project of such astonishing complexity could be completed on time - indeed ahead of time. And working at switch-on exactly as intended. Has there been any project of such complexity since? I doubt it. Could we, with all our so called modern technology undertake such a challenge and make it work even now? I wonder. If you or I were tasked with managing such a huge undertaking how would we divide the responsibility down? How would we construct chains of command and communication so that we could keep track of the overall progress, and understand the risks, threats and challenges? And how would we attempt to do that without PCs, software, the internet, mobile phones? Without even pocket calculators? It beggars belief. So it implies that the calibre of people from top to bottom was of the very highest standard and integrity such that everyone involved could trust everyone else to do their bit.
So - hats off to NASA, to so many brilliant people in the great USA working together towards a national goal and to Kennedy's bold vision at a time of great international tension. And of course, let's not forget the Shuttle - also taking off today.