Your car has more computing power than the system that guided Apollo astronauts to the Moon

Really?

Well it does as long as you don’t have a clapped-out Mini from the sixties. It’s amazing that NASA sent astronauts to the Moon using less computing power than you will find in a modern family car – we’re not even talking top of the range models here.

Mouse-less cars

So if they didn’t need it to get to the Moon, why does your car need all that processing power just to get you around town? Cars don’t have a mouse, USB port or qwerty keyboard, but they do contain up to 50 separate computers controlling the in-car hi-fi display, the ABS anti-locking brakes, the air bags, the air conditioning and even the locks. And this is before you take in account any back seat entertainment systems or satellite navigation gizmos.

Perhaps the most important computer in a modern car is the one that monitors engine emissions and adjusts spark plug rates, fuel injection and the air to fuel ratio in the engine in order to keep noxious emissions as low as possible. Making these sorts of adjustments can also improve engine performance and souped-up cars are now as likely to have additional software as alloy wheels.

Pockect calculator in space

But back to the Apollo mission. When men first walked on the Moon (1969), the Apollo guidance system was the first computer able to provide real-time flight information and automatically navigate the spacecraft. It was also the first operating system to use integrated circuits (miniature electronic circuits like micro chips) but it had a calculator-type keypad and screen. Despite looking primitive, it could multi-task and control actions such as turning on the lunar module descent engine at the right time.

In case of malfunction, the crew were able to use a spare programmable pocket calculator or a slide rule as a back up. It was definitely the skill of the Apollo astronauts and the team back at Mission Control that made the mission a success.

Find related websites about the Apollo missions with physics.org.

Find related websites about the computers in your car with physics.org.

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