Exploring space has been something that’s been on the minds of humankind for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that this became possible. That’s because we have access to technology that our ancestors never could have imagined, and most of that is thanks to the development of computing science. While we had the know-how in aerodynamics and mathematics, there was something a little extra needed, and that’s where computing came in.
Now, the future of space exploration looks brighter than ever thanks to the developments in computing used in the field. Let’s take a look at the history of how computing has been integrated into space exploration in the past, how we use it today, and what it might look like many years down the road.
History of Computing in Space
The first launches to reach outer space didn’t have computer aid, but they also didn’t serve the purpose of exploration. Simply put, we were more occupied in the 1940s and 1950s with simply getting an object into space that we weren’t too focused on much else. That all changed at the start of the 1960s when the Soviet Union launched Vostok 1, the first mission to put a human (Yuri Gagarin) into outer space.
During the decade, the United States launched Project Mercury and Project Gemini, both of which were operated manually via control sticks. With the launch of the Apollo program came the introduction of the Apollo Guidance Computer, making it the first space exploration mission to use onboard computers. At the time, the AGS weighed 70 pounds and had a microscopic amount of RAM compared to today’s standards.
As the years went on, though, the technology advanced to the point where computers became an absolute necessity. They also became much more convenient to have onboard, requiring far less space while also packing a lot more power.
They say that the best ability is availability, and it’s impossible to explore space without a working ship. With that in mind, computing is vital in making sure that the launch goes off smoothly and that anything that needs to be repaired in flight is easily identified. While humans are able to do a run-through and see if there are any glaring fixes that need to be made, computers are able to sense trouble before it starts.
This includes triggering alerts through sensors for problems possibly unseen by the human eye. Computers can alert the crew about what needs to be fixed and run backup systems preemptively without needing a human to switch them on. The previously mentioned Apollo Guidance Computer was even credited as saving the Apollo 13 and 14 missions.
There is a lot of detail that goes into a space mission and navigation is nearly as important as the safety precautions used on a craft. Through computing, we’re able to predict what day is going to have optimal weather conditions for a launch while also predicting the trajectory and paths that will be needed for a successful mission.
Shuttle flight software engineer Roscoe Ferguson said that guidance computers act as the “brains” of a shuttle and that the ones that we see today are lightyears ahead of what they once were, and far beyond the computing technology that we see even on commercial jets. “The environment of space is very harsh and unfriendly and not just space, but getting into space,” Ferguson said. “Something like a desktop might not even survive all the vibration. Then once you get into space, you have the radiation.”
Now that we’ve seen how computing actually gets us into and through outer space, there’s the actual exploration part. It would be nearly impossible for a human to simply look out of a shuttle window and gather enough data to come up with anything conclusive. That’s where computing comes in as onboard telescopes can be operated to see what the human eye can’t.
Computing can tell us what’s far ahead, from another planet to simple space debris. This helps us put together a bigger picture of what lies beyond Earth’s atmosphere. We can use this data to run simulations which include taking a look at black hole behavior and how galaxies are formed. While we had hunches and theories about these things, computing gives us a more hands-on look.
Adding onto the data-gathering aspect of things, computing gives us the ability to operate rovers with onboard computers that allow us to gather data. This has been instrumental in helping us learn more about the surfaces of the moon and Mars over the years in ways that humans simply wouldn’t be able to do over long periods of time.
Computers also make it easier for those in a craft or shuttle to communicate with those on Earth. While we still need more simple technology like antennas to provide communication, computers keep everything running and efficient.