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The hacker, the scrapheap, and the first Apollo computer

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A Tshwane computer engineer has tracked down one of the great treasures of the computer age – the first space flight guidance computer. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK tells the story.

AS-202 launch (2)

Flight AS-202 lifts off on 25 August 1966.

It’s not often that a YouTube video on a technical topic gives one goosebumps. And it’s not often that someone unpacking a computer makes history.

Francois Rautenbach, a computer hardware and software engineer from Tshwane, achieves both with a series of videos he has quietly posted on YouTube.

It shows the “unboxing” of a batch of computer modules that had been found in a pile of scrap metal 40 years ago and kept in storage ever since. Painstaking gathering of a wide range of evidence, from documents to archived films, had convinced Rautenbach he had tracked down the very first Guidance and Navigation Control computer, used on a test flight of the Saturn 1B rocket and the Apollo Command and Service Modules.

SAMSUNG CSC

The Rope Memory Modules from Flight AS-202’s Guidance Computer.

Apollo-Saturn 202, or Flight AS-202, as it was officially called, was the first to use an onboard computer – the same model that would eventually take Apollo 11 to the moon. Rautenbach argues that the computer on AS-202 was also the world’s first microcomputer. That title has been claimed for several computers made in later years, from the Datapoint 2200 built by CTC in 1970 to the Altair 8800 designed in 1974. The AS-202 flight computer goes back to the middle of the previous decade.

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The Apollo lunar module, flown to the moon using the same Guidance Computer model that had been successfully tested on Flight AS-202.

His video succinctly introduces the story: “On 25th August 1966,  a very special computer was launched into space onboard Apollo flight AS-202. This was the first computer to use integrated circuits and the first release of the computer that took the astronauts to the moon. Until recently, the software for the Block 1 ACG (Apollo Guidance Computer) was thought to be lost…”

One can be forgiven for being sceptical, then, when he appears on screen for the first time to say, “I’ve got here with me the software for the first microcomputer.”

Then he unwraps the first package and says: “Guys, these modules contain the software for the first microcomputer that was ever built, that was ever used.”

The goosebumps moment comes when he reveals the NASA serial number on a device called a Rope Memory Module, and declares: “These modules are the authentic flight AS-202 software modules. These were found on a rubbish dump, on a scrap metal heap, about 40 years ago … and we are going to extract the software from this module.”

In a series of three videos, he extracts the software, shows how the computer was constructed, and uses a hospital X-Ray machine to inspect its insides. The third video starts with the kind of phrase that often sets off the hoax-detectors in social media: “Okay, so you guys won’t believe what I’ve been doing today.” But, in this case, it is almost unbelievable as Rautenbach takes the viewer through a physical inspection of the first Apollo guidance computer.

How did an engineer from Tshwane stumble upon one of the great treasures of the computer age? He has tended to avoid the limelight, and describes himself as “a hardware/software engineer who loves working on high-velocity projects and leading small teams of motivated individuals”.

In an interview this week, he added: “I am the perpetual hacker always looking for a new challenge or problem to solve. I have experience in designing digital hardware and writing everything from embedded firmware to high level security systems. Much of the work I did over the last five years revolved around building new and creative payment solutions.”

The breadth of his work gave him the expertise to investigate, verify, and extract the magic contained in the AS-202 computer. A global network of contacts led him to the forgotten hardware,  and that is when the quest began in earnest.

“I got interested in the Apollo Guidance Computer after reading a book by Frank O’Brien (The Apollo Guidance Computer: Architecture and Operation). Most of us grew up with the fallacy that the AGC was less powerful than a basic programmable calculator. I discovered that this was far from the truth and that the AGC was in fact a very powerful and capable computer.

“I started communicating with experts in the field and soon realised that there was a wealth of information available on the AGC and the Apollo space program in general.

“One day I received some photos of AGC Rope Memory modules from a friend in Houston marked ‘Flight 202’. After a little googling, I realised that these modules contained the software from Flight AS-202. As I learned more about AS-202, I discovered that this was the first time the AGC was used in an actual flight.”

Rautenbach eventually tracked down the source of the photos: a man who had picked up the entire computer, with memory modules, at an auction, as part of a three-ton lot of scrap metal.

“At one point he opened up to me and said he had other modules. He admitted he had a full Apollo guidance computer, and my theory was that it was used to develop the Apollo 11 guidance computer.  He sent me more information, and I thought he had THE computer.

“He’s got all this junk in his backyard. He started selling stuff on eBay and one day got a visit from the FBI wanting to know where he got it. He was able to find the original invoice and showed it to them and they went away. But it scared him and he didn’t want to tell anyone else in the USA what he had. Not being from America was an advantage.”

Rautenbach flew to Houston last year, opened the sealed packages and filmed the process.

“This was the first microcomputer. I opened it and played with it.  I realised this was the first computer that actually flew. I also found Rope Memory modules that said Flight 202, and he didn’t know what that was. I found it was from AS-202, and I said we can extract stuff from this.”

Rautenbach paid a deposit to borrow the units and have them sent to South Africa, so that he could extract and rebuild the software. He also made contact with Eldon Hall, leader of the team that developed the Apollo guidance computer and author of the 1966 book, Journey to the Moon: The History of the Apollo Guidance Computer.

The correspondence helped him verify the nature of the “scrap”. The Apollo command module from flight AS-202 was restored and is now on permanent display on the USS Hornet, the legendary aircraft carrier used to recover many Apollo command modules and now a museum. However, the computer parts were sold as scrap in 1976. And NASA never preserved a single copy of the software that had been used on its first guidance computer.

Fortunately, a sharp-eyed speculator realised the lot may contain something special. He sold off some of the scrap over the years, until that visit by the FBI. He still prefers to remain nameless.

Last week, on the 50th anniversary of the launch of AS-202, Rautenbach quietly began posting the evidence online. He also announced that the raw data he had extracted would shortly be made available to anyone who wished to analyse it.

His videos on the unboxing of the AS-202 computer and the extraction of the software can be viewed on YouTube at http://bit.ly/as202, where he also plans to post instructions for accessing the software.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

Nasa’s description of flight AS-202 can be found at: http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/nmc/spacecraftDisplay.do?id=APST202

Technical specifications of the Apollo Guidance Computer can be found at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_Guidance_Computer

Apollo comes back to Pretoria

Francois Rautenbach points out that South Africa played a prominent role during the 93 minutes of flight AS-202: “Pretoria is mentioned no less than three times in the post-flight report. The AS-202 flight actually reached it’s highest point above South Africa. The telemetry data from the flight were recorded on computer tape at Hartebeesthoek and later shipped back to NASA.”

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How to rob a bank in the 21st century

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In the early 1980s, South Africans were gripped by tales of the most infamous bank robbery gangs the country had ever known: The Stander Gang. The gang would boldly walk into banks, brandishing weapons, demand cash and simply disappear. These days, a criminal doesn’t even have to be in the same country as the bank he or she intends to rob. Cyber criminals are quite capable of emptying bank accounts without even stepping out of their own homes.

As we become more and more aware of cybersecurity and the breaches that can occur, we’ve become more vigilant. Criminals, however, are still going to follow the money and even though security may be beefed up in many organisations, hackers are going to go for the weakest links. This makes it quintessential for consumers and enterprises to stay one step ahead of the game.

“Not only do these cyber bank criminals get away with the cash, they also end up damaging an organisation’s reputation and the integrity of its infrastructure,” says Indi Siriniwasa, Vice President of Trend Micro, Sub-Saharan Africa. “And sometimes, these breaches mean they get away with more than just cash – they can make off with data and personal information as well.”

Because the cyber criminals operate outside bricks and mortar, going for the cash register or robbing the customers is not where their misdeeds end. Bank employees – from the tellers to the CEO – are all fair game.

But how do they do it? Taking money out of an account is not the only way to steal money. Cyber criminals can zero in on the bank’s infrastructure, or hack into payment systems and even payment documents. Part of a successful operation for them may also include hacking into telecommunications to gain access to one-time pins or mobile networks.

“It’s not just about hacking,” says Siriniwasa.. “It’s also about the hackers trying to get an ‘inside man’ in the bank who could help them or even using a person’s personal details to get a new SIM so that they can have access to OTPs. Of course, they also use the tried and tested method of phishing which continues to be exceptionally effective – despite the education in the market to thwart it.”

The amounts of malware and available attacks to gain access to bank funds is strikingly vast and varies from using web injection script, social engineering and even targeting internal networks as well as points of sale systems. If there is an internet connection and a system you can be assured that there is a cybercriminal trying to crack it. The impact on the bank itself is also massive, with reputations left in tatters and customers moving their business elsewhere.

“We see that cyber criminals use multi-faceted attacks,” says Siriniwasa. “This means that we need to come at security from multiple angles as well. Every single layer of an organisation’s online perimeter need to be secured. Threat isolation is exceptionally important and having security with intrusion protection is vital. Again, vigilance on the part of staff and customers also goes a long way to preventing attacks. These criminals might not carry guns like Andre Stander and his gang, but they are just as dangerous – in fact – probably more so.”

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Beaten by big data? AI is the answer

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by ZAKES SOCIKWA, cloud big data and analytics lead at Oracle

In 2019, it’sestimated we’ll generate more data than we did in the previous 5,000 years. Data is fast becoming the most valuable asset of any modern organisation, and while most have access to their internal data, they continue to experience challenges in deriving maximum value through being able to effectively monetise the information that they hold.

The foundation of any analytics or Business Intelligence (BI) reporting capability is an efficient data collection system that ensures events/transactions are properly recorded, captured, processed and stored. Some of this information on its own might not provide any valuable insights, but if it is analysed together with other sources might yield interesting patterns.

Big data opens up possibilities of enhancing internal sources with unstructured data and information from Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Furthermore, as we move to a digital age, more businesses are implementing customer experience solutions and there is a growing need for them to improve their service and personalise customer engagements.

The digital behaviour of customers, such as social media postings and the networks or platforms they engage with, further provides valuable information for data collection. Information gathering methods are being expanded to accommodate all types and formats of data, including images, videos, and more.

In the past, BI and Data Mining were left to highly technical and analytical individuals, but the introduction of data visualisation tools is democratising the analytics world. However, business users and report consumers often do not have a clear understanding of what they need or what is possible.

AI now embedded into day to day applications

To this end, artificial intelligence (AI) is finishing what business intelligence started. By gathering, contextualising, understanding, and acting on huge quantities of data, AI has given rise to a new breed of applications – one that’s continuously improving and adapting to the conditions around it. The more data that is available for the analysis, the better is the quality of the outcomes or predictions.

In addition, AI changes the productivity equation for many jobs by automating activities and adapting current jobs to solve more complex and time-consuming problems, from recruiters being able to source better candidates faster to financial analysts eliminating manual error-prone reporting.

This type of automation will not replace all jobs but will invent new ones. This enables businesses to reduce the time to complete tasks and the costs of maintenance, and will lead to the creation of higher-value jobs and new engagement models. Oracle predicts that by 2025, the productivity gains delivered by AI, emerging technologies, and augmented experiences could double compared to today’s operations.

According to the IDC, worldwide revenues for big data and business analytics (BDA) solutions was expected to total $166 billion in 2018, and forecast to reach $260 billion in 2022, with a compound annual growth rate of 11.9% over the 2017-2022 forecast period. It adds that two of the fastest growing BDA technology categories will be Cognitive/AI Software Platforms (36.5% CAGR) and Non-relational Analytic Data Stores (30.3% CAGR)¹.

Informed decisions, now and in the future

As new layers of technology are introduced and more complex data sources are added to the ecosystem, the need for a tightly integrated technology stack becomes a challenge. It is advisable to choose your technology components very carefully and always have the end state in mind.

More development on emerging technologies such as blockchain, AI, IoT, virtual reality and others will probably be available on cloud first before coming on premise. For those organisations that are adopting public cloud, there are opportunities to consume the benefits of public cloud and drive down costs of doing business.

While the introduction of public cloud is posing a challenge on data sovereignty and other regulations, technology providers such as Oracle have developed a ‘Cloud at Customer’ model that provides the full benefits of public cloud – but located on premise, within an organisation’s own data centre.

The best organisations will innovate and optimise faster than the rest. Best decisions must be made around choice of technology, business processes, integration and architectures that are fit for business. In the information marketplace, speed and informed decision making will be key differentiators amongst competitors.

¹ IDC Press Release, Revenues for Big Data and Business Analytics Solutions Forecast to Reach $260 Billion in 2022, Led by the Banking and Manufacturing Industries, According to IDC, 15 August 2018

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