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A Cambridge Lab That Made Software For Apollo 11 Is Working On The Next Moonshot01:39
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Draper, a nonprofit engineering firm headquartered in Cambridge, is participating in NASA's mission to advance human lunar landers. Pictured is an artist's illustration of the lunar lander Artemis, a crewed lander concept developed by Draper. (Courtesy of Draper)
Draper, a nonprofit engineering firm headquartered in Cambridge, is participating in NASA's mission to advance human lunar landers. Pictured is an artist's illustration of the lunar lander Artemis, a crewed lander concept developed by Draper. (Courtesy of Draper)

In the 1960s, engineers and scientists at MIT's Instrumentation Laboratory got a contract from NASA. Their assignment: Create navigation and flight control systems that would allow the astronauts of Apollo 11 to navigate safely to and from the surface of the moon.

“It's hard to think about how dangerous this was,” said Seamus Tuohy, director of space systems at Draper, a nonprofit engineering firm that was created when the lab later spun off from MIT. “But in order to do that, a lot of other things had to be invented.”

Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, the Cambridge-based company celebrated the milestone with an exhibit called “Hack the Moon,” which highlights how the technologies it developed for Apollo played a key role in the mission and paved the way for future aerospace innovations.

“A lot of things we think of as modern, whether it's software engineering or flight computers or modern aviation ... all came from Apollo,” Tuohy said. “It was almost like a crucible of technology development.”

NASA hopes to send astronauts to the moon again by 2024. As part of that mission, dubbed Artemis, Draper is one of several companies working on prototypes for a new lunar lander. According to Draper, the company is one of five firms selected by NASA for contracts that carry a “potential value of up to $45.5 million.”

Dr. Charles “Doc” Stark Draper, who led the MIT Instrumentation Lab as it developed software for the Apollo 11 mission, sits in an Apollo Navigation Simulator on the roof of the MIT Instrumentation Lab in Cambridge. (Courtesy of Draper)
Dr. Charles “Doc” Stark Draper, who led the MIT Instrumentation Lab as it developed software for the Apollo 11 mission, sits in an Apollo Navigation Simulator on the roof of the MIT Instrumentation Lab in Cambridge. (Courtesy of Draper)

In June, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told CNN that Artemis would cost an estimated $20 billion to $30 billion over the next five years.

Asked why we should return to the moon, Tuohy cited a few potential benefits. First, he said, it would be valuable for science; studying the moon up close could teach us a lot about the origins of the Earth. Second, parts of the moon could contain resources, such as rare earth elements, that could be mined for commercial purposes or used for fuel for deeper space travel.

But Tuohy also echoed a 1962 speech by President John F. Kennedy, adding that we should go back to the moon because “it would be hard.”

“We can prove to ourselves that we can do great things again," he said. "That we can solve big problems.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Seamus Tuohy's name in a few instances. We regret the error.

This segment aired on July 18, 2019.

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Adrian Ma is a reporter for WBUR's Bostonomix team.

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