Computers are my copilot: Six machines that might help you get there

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Squares built the space program!

Picture courtesy of IBM; click for full size

First in space

The Apollo Guidance Computer got an awful lot of press in the recent hoopla over the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing -- which meant, as usual, that the Gemini program got slighted again.

America's first spacecraft, the Mercury capsule, had virtually no maneuvering capability, and thus no need for a computer. IBM built the computer to curve to fit the shape of the capsule, in a process described as "fitting a refrigerator inside a hatbox." The computer had 159,744 bits of memory -- about 20 KB -- and was used to compute the complicated docking manuerving the Gemini program was designed to test in preparation for the Moon launch program.

NASA's early astronauts were fighter pilots, for the most part, and didn't like being told what to do by a machine. In the first manned Gemini launch in 1965, astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young were told to ignore the computer's output if it disagreed with the test calculations that were performed before lift-off, which they did -- resulting in a splashdown that was almost 60 miles off-target.

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