Today, July 16, 2019, marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the mission that took humanity to the Moon for the first time. It was that morning July 16, 1969 what Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins embarked on Apollo 11 so that, four days later, they reach (the first two) the lunar soil.
Obviously, the world (and the United States in particular) is enthusiastically celebrating the milestone. And one of the coolest ways to remember the date is to compare the computing power of Apollo 11 machines with a small device you have in your pocket today.
This is exactly what computer science professor Graham Kendall of the University of Nottingham did in an article to The Conversation. The scholar compared the amount of RAM and ROM in the Apollo Guidance Computer, the computer that guided the first manned mission to land on the Moon, with that of a iPhone XS in 2019 – and the results, as expected, are jaw-dropping.
The Apollo 11 computer had 32,768 bits of RAM, which is enough to store text (unformatted) of about 2,000 words – that is, the equivalent of about four articles like the one you are reading. The iPhone XS, with 4GB of RAM (or 34,359,738,368 bits), has about 1 million times more memory than the Apollo Guidance Computer.
It gets even more impressive when comparing the ROM: the mission’s on-board computer had only 72KB of read-only memory. A 512GB iPhone XS, on the other hand, has 7 million times more memory of the type.
In terms of processing power, the magazine ZME Science has an even cooler comparison – and taking into account not the iPhone XS, but the iPhone 6. According to the article’s calculations, that smartphone’s A8 chip is capable of processing about 3.36 billion instructions per second, which means that it is about 120 million times faster that the computer that guided humanity to the moon for the first time.
Obviously, we are comparing technologies with five decades of distance between them, which is nothing more than an exercise in astonishment. Still, it’s cool to imagine how NASA professionals managed to organize such an ambitious mission with technological power that, compared to today, it is almost nil – but it was, at the time, the ultimate in computing.
In this sense, the article by The Conversation has a really cool section imagining what would change and what would remain the same if the Apollo 11 mission was carried out in 2019, not in 1969. According to Kendall, the software development for the ship’s computer would be much faster, since the machines to test, compile and run the necessary code are millions of times more powerful.
Another important change would be in the user interface: instead of the calculator look, with buttons and numeric commands, we would probably have interactive commands on a touchscreen or – in an even more advanced perspective – a holographic interface, controlled by gestures or the movement of the eyes. Well “Iron Man”, right?
Interestingly, an aspect that would not have changed at all in relation to 1969 would be the communication between Apollo 11 and Earth – after all, no one has yet discovered a way to transmit data at a faster speed than light. As today’s images have much higher resolution (and size), photos of the Moon would take much longer to arrive … but, at least, they would be much more showy.
via Cult of Mac