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The hacker, the scrapheap, and the first Apollo computer

Three years ago, a Tshwane computer engineer tracked down the “lost” first Apollo space flight guidance computer. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK retells the story on Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary.

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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, achieved both with a series of videos he quietly posted on YouTube in 2016, and shared by Gadget.

AS-202 launch (2)
Flight AS-202 lifts off on 25 August 1966.

It showed 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 argued that the computer on AS-202 was also the world’s first microcomputer. That title had 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 introduced 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 appeared on screen for the first time to say, “I’ve got here with me the software for the first microcomputer.”

Then he unwrapped 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 came when he revealed the NASA serial number on a device called a Rope Memory Module, and declared: “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 extracted the software, showed how the computer was constructed, and used a hospital X-Ray machine to inspect its insides. The third video started 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 was almost unbelievable as Rautenbach took 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 tended to avoid the limelight, and described himself as “a hardware/software engineer who loves working on high-velocity projects and leading small teams of motivated individuals”.

In an interview with Gadget, he said: “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 preferred to remain nameless.

In August 2016, 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 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 planned 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 pointed 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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Millennials turning 40: NOW will you stop targeting them?

It’s one of the most overused terms in youth marketing, and probably the most inaccurate, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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One of the most irritating buzzwords embraced by marketers in recent years is the term “millennial”. Most are clueless about its true meaning, and use it as a supposedly cool synonym for “young adults”. The flaw in this targeting – and the word “flaw” here is like calling the Grand Canyon a trench – is that it utterly ignores the meaning of the term. “Millennials” are formally defined as anyone born from 1980 to 2000, meaning they have typically come of age after the dawn of the millennium, or during the 21st century.

Think about that for a moment. Next year, the millennial will be formally defined as anyone aged from 20 to 40. So here you have an entire advertising, marketing and public relations industry hanging onto a cool definition, while in effect arguing that 40-year-olds are youths who want the same thing as newly-minted university graduates or job entrants.

When the communications industry discovers just how embarrassing its glib use of the term really is, it will no doubt pivot – millennial-speak for “changing your business model when it proves to be a disaster, but you still appear to be cool” – to the next big thing in generational theory.

That next big thing is currently Generation Z, or people born after the turn of the century. It’s very convenient to lump them all together and claim they have a different set of values and expectations to those who went before. Allegedly, they are engaged in a quest for experience, compared to millennials – the 19-year-olds and 39-olds alike – supposedly all on a quest for relevance.

In reality, all are part of Generation #, latching onto the latest hashtag trend that sweeps social media, desperate to go viral if they are producers of social content, desperate to have caught onto the trend before their peers.

The irony is that marketers’ quest for cutting edge target markets is, in reality, a hangover from the days when there was no such thing as generational theory, and marketing was all about clearly defined target markets. In the era of big data and mass personalization, that idea seems rather quaint.

Indeed, according to Grant Lapping, managing director of DataCore Media, it no longer matters who brands think their target market is.

“The reason for this is simple: with the technology and data digital marketers have access to today, we no longer need to limit our potential target audience to a set of personas or segments derived through customer research. While this type of customer segmentation was – and remains – important for engagements across traditional above-the-line engagements in mass media, digital marketing gives us the tools we need to target customers on a far more granular and personalised level.

“Where customer research gives us an indication of who the audience is, data can tell us exactly what they want and how they may behave.”

Netflix, he points out, is an example of a company that is changing its industry by avoiding audience segmentation, once the holy grail of entertainment.

In other words, it understands that 20-year-olds and 40-year-olds are very different – but so is everyone in between.

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

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Robots coming to IFA

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Robotics is no longer about mechanical humanoids, but rather becoming an interface between man and machine. That is a key message being delivered at next month’s IFA consumer electronics expo in Berlin. An entire hall will be devoted to IFA Next, which will not only offer a look into the future, but also show what form it will take.

The concepts are as varied as the exhibitors themselves. However, there are similarities in the various products, some more human than others, in the fascinating ways in which they establish a link between fun, learning and programming. In many cases, they are aimed at children and young people.

The following will be among the exhibitors making Hall 26 a must-visit:

Leju Robotics (Stand 115) from China is featuring what we all imagine a robot to be. The bipedal Aelos 1s can walk, dance and play football. And in carrying out all these actions it responds to spoken commands. But it also challenges young researchers to apply their creativity in programming it and teaching it new actions. And conversely, it also imparts scholastic knowledge.

Cubroid (Stand 231, KIRIA) from Korea starts off by promoting an independent approach to the way it deals with tasks. Multi-functional cubes, glowing as they play music, or equipped with a tiny rotating motor, join together like Lego pieces. Configuration and programming are thus combined, providing a basic idea of what constitutes artificial intelligence.

Spain is represented by Ebotics (Stand 218). This company is presenting an entire portfolio of building components, including the “Mint” educational program. The modular system explains about modern construction, programming and the entire field of robotics.

Elematec Corporation (Stand 208) from Japan is presenting the two-armed SCARA, which is not intended to deal with any tasks, but in particular to assist people with their work.

Everybot (Stand 231, KIRIA) from Japan approaches the concept of robotics by introducing an autonomous floor-cleaning machine, similar to a robot vacuum cleaner.

And Segway (Stand 222) is using a number of products to explain the modern approach to battery-powered locomotion.

IFA will take place at the Berlin Exhibition Grounds (ExpoCenter City) from 6 to 11 September 2019. For more information, visit www.ifa-berlin.com

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