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Over 100 years, NASA's top 5 tech advances

Sharon Gaudin | April 1, 2015
NASA, and its predecessor NACA, helped develop computer chips, satellite communications and safer flight.

NASA's historian explained what can be considered the top five technologies that NASA -- and NACA -- developed or helped develop.

The integrated circuit
The integrated circuit, better known as a computer chip, can be found in everything from laptops to cars, iPhones and smart appliances.

NASA did not invent the integrated circuit, but the agency's engineers advanced the work on it.

"Often times the space program gets credit for the integrated circuit," Barry told Computerworld. "I think that's a little overblown. The military and others had been working on it for some time, but NASA pushed it forward dramatically."

NASA helped move the development of the computer chip along because engineers were pushing to get the Apollo mission moving. Apollo, which landed 12 astronauts on the moon between 1969 and 1972, needed a guidance computer.

It was important that the guidance system that was going into space be as lightweight as possible. The less weight, the less fuel and power NASA would need to launch everything into space. That meant rethinking the guidance system and the integrated circuits. Charles Stark Draper, an engineer and scientist at MIT, led the research into making the circuit lighter and work better.

"They had to find a way to make it lighter and make it reprogrammable and make an interface that the astronauts could use," explained Barry. "The Apollo program pushed forward the limits on size and interface. There were a lot of advances in the Apollo guidance computer."

While Draper is famous for his contribution to the Apollo circuits, there was a group of women who worked at New England textile mills who also deserve some of the credit.

"For the memory on the computer, a lot of it was actually hardwired," said Barry. "It was made out of wire. They built in certain commands and a lot of software was really hardware because it was wired in. The core memory was literally [made of] wires. They had seamstresses from the mill factories in Lowell, Mass., who could sew the core of the computer together. It was called Rope Core Memory."

Communication satellites
Another major technology advance that can be attributed to NASA are today's communication satellites.

"One of the most critical [technologies] was communication satellites," said Barry. "If you were in Timbuktu, we could sit on the phone and talk because of communication satellites. The connectivity of the whole world is commonly driven by satellites."

In the early days of attempting to send long-distance communications, the main idea was to bounce radio signals off something in orbit, Barry said. In the early 1960s, NASA, working with industry, ran a series of tests using giant Mylar balloons, called Echo satellites. With Project Echo, NASA was able to bounce radio signals off the balloons.


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