July 11, 2019

50 years ago, Apollo 11 landed on the moon.

IEEE Life Fellow George Schmidt helped get it there – he worked on the equipment used in the Apollo’s test lab, and monitored the guidance system in Cape Kennedy before every Apollo launch. His 46-year career was spent at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory and the Draper Laboratory, specializing in guidance navigation control and avionics.

Putting a human on the moon was something that nobody had ever done before. And that put a lot of pressure on the engineers to make sure nothing went wrong. Of course, this was before personal computers and robust simulations, so hardware had to get built in order to be tested.

Thinking back on the technology and the experience, Schmidt feels there were many things that made Apollo successful, which are still applicable to engineers today. He shared with IEEE Transmitter his two biggest learnings. First, he says, “There’s an attitude that goes with being a good engineer, and that is: no unexplained failures. If you’re in a lab testing a piece of hardware and the test doesn’t go the right way, don’t hit the restart button. Stop to figure out what caused it.”

Engineering today is quite different than it was back then. Labs have much greater computing power, integrated circuits and a host of other technologies. Simulation is now a standard part of the design process.

His second biggest takeaway – “You should ask ‘what if?’ If you observe something in the laboratory that isn’t quite right, think about the potential impact; we had to think ‘what if it had happened in a real mission?’ We found a lot of things that, had they happened, would’ve been a disaster.”

So what excites Schmidt the most about the newest wave of space technologies?

“Way back when, it used to be a straightforward process – you launched the vehicles into space, they flew around in space for a while, then the exciting part was always re-entry because of the blackout period,” Schmidt recalls. While reentering the Earth’s atmosphere behind a heat shield, astronauts would lose communication with mission control for several minutes. “When radio communications could be re-established, there would be a big cheer in the control room,” Schmidt says.

“We’ve gone from that kind of scenario to one where you look at SpaceX and Falcon 9 and see the most amazing guidance, navigation and control system for spacecraft and rockets that we have.

“Falcon 9 has the ability to be launched and then the boosters, when they separate, are guided back by a very clever guidance and navigation control system to land on a barge in the ocean. They have reusable boosters now that they say can be used 100 times – the solid boosters that fell off the Shuttle ended up being wrecked and not being reusable again.”