Pulse news magazine

Volume 26, August 2019

From moon landing to Mars landing: Celebrating 50 years of space technology innovation

One summer day in July 1969, 600 million people watched in their living rooms as Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon, changing the course of history.

The Apollo 11 mission changed the world forever. BAE Systems is proud to have played a role in this groundbreaking achievement, and continues to look for ways to transform imagination into reality with its boundary-pushing technological solutions.

One summer day in July 1969, 600 million people watched in their living rooms as Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon, changing the course of history.

Apollo's moon mission was one of the most ambitious government projects ever embarked upon: the result of tireless work and a steadfast belief that humankind could achieve anything.

During the 1960s, BAE Systems – Sanders at the time – won the contract to build the Saturn V prelaunch checkout system as part of the Apollo 11 mission. "This was an exciting opportunity for the company," said Perry Bowden, BAE Systems director of Strategy and Business Development in Huntsville, Alabama.

Our prelaunch checkout system was the very first automatic, computerized system of the space program. Apollo 11 also incorporated BAE Systems' display consoles, data processing, and light panels. In addition, we designed and built highly reliable filters used in a data processing subsystem aboard the Apollo 11 Lunar Excursion Module.

While we played an important role, we certainly were not alone. NASA estimates more than 400,000 engineers, scientists, and technicians – many of them outside contractors – supported the project. Hundreds of thousands of innovative minds came together for a common purpose – and of course, the mission was a huge success.

Fast forward to 2019. That same trailblazing spirit still permeates throughout BAE Systems, but with another half a century of ingenuity under its belt.

Today, as a world leader in radiation-hardened computers and processors, resilient ground systems, and advanced mission payloads, we're no stranger to the interplanetary environment. In fact, our products touch millions of people each day. Back in 1969, you'd excitedly twirl the numbers of your rotary phone to share the news about the lunar landing. Today, your daily weather report, online banking session, and GPS technology are all conveniently housed on your cell phone. All of this now commonplace technology depends on satellites to function, many of which are enabled by BAE Systems' products.

To date, we have more than 1,000 single board computers (SBCs; complete computers built on a single circuit board) on orbit supporting the Department of Defense, civil, commercial, and national security space missions.

"It's a feeling of pride to see something launch, knowing that our product is heading to its mission, or knowing that it's out there looking over the soldiers on the ground," said LeeAnn Raczkowski, senior engineer for C4ISR Systems. "They're using our technology to keep everyone safe."

Much like Neil, our employees are exhilarated by going into uncharted territories, and we're always looking to take our technology one step further. Our fourth generation RAD5545® computer — the most advanced rad-hard computer ever created for the space community — can perform 5.6 billion instructions every second while operating in the most treacherous environment.

"At the heart of that computer is the processor itself: the most advanced radiation hardened system-on-chip processor ever created for the space market," said Ricardo Gonzalez, director of Space Systems in the C4ISRS business area. "At just over four pounds and 33 watts, it can perform missions in orbit that no one else can touch."

While the famed Apollo system was nearing the end of its demonstration phases in preparation for the lunar mission, another history-making project was in the works. The unmanned Mariner VI and VII began a six-month journey to Mars to give humankind its first detailed look of the Red Planet – a major step forward in our then-limited understanding of the mysterious celestial body.

As a continuation of this decades-long journey, our ground-breaking RAD750® SBC — the "workhorse" of the industry — recently guided NASA's InSight spacecraft on its grueling six-month voyage to the Red Planet.

"Our team watched the landing intently to see if the onboard computers that we had built — tested and retested — had made it safely to the Red Planet," said Gonzalez. "We're involved in many space projects, and we have had computers on Mars since 1997, but this kind of result really keeps our group motivated."

Indeed, this represents the eighth Mars mission enabled by BAE Systems' family of advanced, radiation-hardened electronics — and certainly not the last.

So where do we go from here? Perhaps one day in the not too distant future, humans will land on Mars. Perhaps not long after that, some of us will call it "home." Sound impossible? We stand with Neil in believing that nothing truly is.

By Shelley Walcott, Communications, Nashua, New Hampshire, and Kelly Hussey, Communications, Hudson, New Hampshire