An Apollo Spacecraft Computer Is Brought Back to Life

An Apollo Spacecraft Computer Is Brought Back to Life

Mr. Loocke was no museum curator or computer professional. He was a salesman at heart. Born and bred in Pasadena, Texas, he once ran a local store called Wonder Warthog Sound and Light, which sold light-show equipment, black-light posters and other psychedelia. As he recalls, he was looking for circuit boards at a scrap-metal warehouse in 1976 when he spotted NASA equipment from the Gemini, Mercury and Apollo space programs. All of it had been sold as surplus at government auction. On the spot, he bought two tons of it for a fraction of its original cost and hauled it home.

It was years before he realized what he had found. “At the time, it didn’t seem that important, but I held on to it,” he says.

Verified device

Eldon Hall, the digital-computing pioneer who led the team that designed the computer at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, verified the unit’s authenticity in 2004 when, at Mr. Loocke’s invitation, he took it apart and inspected it at a military-computing conference. It had been used for ground tests, he says, to certify the lunar lander as safe for human flight.

Eldon Hall, who led the development of the Apollo computer at MIT, verified that Jimmie Loocke’s computer was authentic. Photo: Draper

Its serial numbers suggest that it originally had been installed in a lunar lander now on exhibit at Space Center Houston, the third built for the moon program, according to Mr. Loocke’s research.

“It is the lunar module that received the man-rating that paved the way for all the other lunar modules to go into space,” says exhibits director Paul Spana. Mr. Spana doesn’t know how or when the computer could have gotten separated from its lander.

Mr. Hall hadn’t seen an onboard computer since the end of Apollo. It was Mr. Hall who gambled on using a then-untried device called an integrated circuit to make a computer small enough to fit in a space capsule, robust enough to survive a Saturn V rocket launch, and fast enough to monitor or control 200 spacecraft systems at the same time.

At his urging, the Apollo program became the first and single largest consumer of the semiconductor chips, buying a million or more of them, some 60% of all the integrated circuits produced in the U.S. between 1962 and 1967, according to Mr. Hall’s purchasing records. The first computer chips tested by MIT cost $1,000 each. By the time astronauts landed on the moon, the price had dropped to $15 apiece, his records show. It set a pattern of innovation, quality control and price-cutting that persists in the computer business to this day. “It kicked off the integrated-circuit-technology industry,” says Mr. Hall, 96, who now lives in Florida. “That was the creation of Silicon Valley.”