Advancing human exploration: Is space the final frontier, and how can data and AI get us there?
Fifty years after the moon landing, it’s not just NASA working on what many consider the final frontier for humanity: space travel. NASA, however, is special, and one of the reasons is that data is at the heart of what it does.
Fifty years is a long time by human standards, and an eon by technology standards. In 1969, not many organizations even knew what a computer was, let alone used one. Though it’s trivial, revisiting and comparing the compute power of then to what we have now can help us realize the effort it took to realize the achievement that the moon landing was.
The scale of our compute and storage capabilities has changed dramatically as Moore’s law has been in full effect. Like many “laws,” Moore’s law is more like a rule of thumb, stating that the number of transistors in dense integrated circuit doubles about every two years. So, theoretically, our compute power roughly doubles every two years.
In 1969, astronauts had access to only 72KB of computer memory. By comparison, a 64GB cell phone today carries almost a million times more storage space. Pioneer software engineers like Margaret Hamilton (who is also credited with coining the term) had to use paper punch cards to feed information into room-sized computers with no screen interface.
Certain things remain unchanged, compared to 50 years ago. The need for a holistic view is one. Hamilton, for example, viewed the Apollo mission as a system: “part is realized as software, part is peopleware, part is hardware.”
Outsourcing is another one. In 1969, the code that Hamilton and others wrote was sent to a Raytheon factory. There it was woven into a long “rope” of wire, encoding ones, and zeroes. This was a workaround for the Apollo computers’ limited memory. Today, contractors still undertake significant parts of NASA’s projects.
One of the most high-profile among those projects is Orion. Orion is a collaborative project involving NASA and ESA, currently under development. Orion is intended to be the main crew vehicle of the Artemis lunar exploration program as well as potential crew flights to asteroids and Mars.
Just a few days back, Orion was successfully launched on a test mission into Earth’s atmosphere. The main objective of this mission was to collect and analyze data from 12 data recorders that were ejected during the test capsule’s descent. Analysis of the information will provide insight into the abort system’s performance.