5 Times Computer Science Made History in Space
News From endless lines of code to the ever-expanding galaxy, we narrow the list down to a handful of pivotal times computer science enabled us to go where no one had gone before.
There’s been a lot of space in the news, of late—space exploration, vivid images of planets we’ve only dreamed of glimpsing, and reminiscences of bygone space missions. To understand how profound these developments truly are, let’s take a look back at the engineers responsible for some of our most historical missions.
1. Rocket Girls
“The Rocket Girls” were the precursor to the modern Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech. In the 1940s, the early days of the space race, many of the scientists designing the U.S.’s first satellites were, in fact, women. They were brought on to complete the calculations so crucial to the design of missiles and rockets, and they were called “human computers.” Collectively, their work would send a man to the moon and usher space exploration into the 21st century.
2. All in the code
About two months ago, a former NASA intern released online the entire body of code written for the Apollo 11 mission. You might’ve seen the iconic image of Margaret Hamilton, an MIT computer scientist responsible, in part, for the successful execution of the first manned mission to the moon. Since the release, programmers have been sifting through the github site to find Easter eggs (hidden, often humorous, tidbits left behind by NASA engineers) and marvel at the complexity of the code, much of it written in dense, low-level assembly.
3. Pictures of Pluto
You might recall news of the launch of New Horizons in 2006. A few months ago, the mission resurfaced: the spacecraft had reached Pluto and had the photographs to show for it. Pictured were sweeping expanses of nitrogen-ice, “shorelines” abutting these vast seas of ice, and a heart-shaped nitrogen glacier, the largest in the solar system. Engineers on the New Horizons mission say that software onboard the spacecraft was written mostly in C, with some assembly “sprinkled here and there.”
4. The Falcon has landed
In the early hours of July 18, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket landed upright at Cape Canaveral. The landing was the most recent of a string of successes from SpaceX: an upright landing in April and two successful upright landings in May, all on the SpaceX drone ship. During a Reddit AMA session three years ago, SpaceX engineers revealed that their vehicle code base was on the order of several hundred thousand lines of code. One Redditor wanted to know when they could start packing their bags for Mars. “Give us 5 to 10 years,” the engineers responded.
5. The Next Generation
Since 1951, the National Society of Professional Engineers has sponsored an Engineers Week. Recently, they’ve also designated February 25th as “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day.” This past February, women at NASA spoke with the next generation of female engineers. “I really didn’t focus on engineering or science as being male-dominated fields,” says Debbie Martinez, a project operations manager for the Convergent Aeronautical Solutions program. “I just thought of it as being cool careers where I could apply my favorite topics of math and science. Fortunately NASA thinks that way, too, and has a growing diverse workforce which lets us focus on what really matters: being future pioneers for the world.”