August 15, 2019

Mankind’s desire to explore has resulted in some of our greatest technological accomplishments, and few pursuits have produced a larger impact than our exploration of space. 

Whether impressive ends in themselves, or for their spillover effects into the consumer technologies we use today, the innovations that were part of the following missions are deserving of recognition.

Simulations and Integrated Circuits

The world has been abuzz for the past couple of months remembering the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. For the purposes of this article, two key things stand out: simulation software and integrated circuits.

While simulation today is standard for testing aircraft before they’re built, that wasn’t the case with the early Apollo missions. IEEE Life Fellow George Schmidt was on the Apollo technical staff: “We didn’t have the computer tools at the beginning to do simulations of systems – it was all pencil and paper, and the proof in the pudding was to build some prototype hardware and see what happened.

“What’s happened since then, and Apollo was one of the instigators of this,” says Schmidt, “was that simulation became the real design tool for engineers. With digital simulation, you could vary the parameters of the system design that you were using and very rapidly hone in on something that seemed to work.”

Another technology accelerated by the Apollo missions was the integrated circuit. Schmidt again: “When we first started, the notion was that the onboard computer for the Apollo command module and lunar module would be transistor-based. But it was rapidly determined that if you tried to build a computer that had all the programs and controls, it would take up the whole spacecraft.

“In those days, integrated circuits had just been invented, and were undergoing testing. There was a major decision made to use integrated circuits, which would cut down the requirements for space to one cubic foot of computer in the command module.” The engineers were successful, and today, integrated circuits are ubiquitous.

Radar Astronomy

Though it has much less name recognition than Apollo, Project Diana was a pivotal program in its own right. Constructed as an array of antennae at Camp Evans in New Jersey, it did something in 1946 that had never been done before. According to a recent article in The Institute, Project Diana “sent a radar pulse toward the moon as it rose above the horizon. Just 2.5 seconds later, the signal had bounced off the lunar surface, its echo appearing clearly on an oscilloscope.”

Project Diana was dedicated as an IEEE Milestone this past May for initiating the fields of radar astronomy and space communications. What is radar astronomy, exactly? “The basic technique of bouncing radio signals off distant bodies that was developed for the project has been used to gather data about the geological and dynamic properties of many of the solar system’s planets and other heavenly bodies,” according to The Institute. “Additionally, the technique has been used to determine the distance from the earth to the sun and the scale of the solar system itself.” Pretty transformative results for a project over 70 years ago.

Breaking Distance Records

While no one could’ve predicted how far or for how long Voyager 1 would last when it was launched in 1973, it has become the benchmark for distance in man-made spacecraft. As of this writing, Voyager 1 is a whopping 21.9 million km away from Earth. More on its history can be found here, which contains this defining quote: “Voyager 1 is now the most distant man-made object in the universe.”

After 40 years, NASA says it continues to communicate with the spacecraft daily.

This is, of course, only a brief sampling of space exploration-related technologies and the broad effects they’ve had. To learn more about their impact and where things are headed in the future, take a look at our initiative Space Exploration, Technology and Our Lives.