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Integrated Circuits and the Space Program: A Partial Retraction


In response to the multitude of critical comments on the original version of my previous post, I took a deeper look at the case of integrated circuits. Based on that, I’m prepared to offer at least a partial retraction.

The best source I found was a 1996 book called Journey to the Moon: The History of the Apollo Guidance Computer by Eldon Hall, who was one of the main designers of the Apollo computer (a search will find this on Google books). Here are four of the most relevant paragraphs.

This action made NASA’s Apollo Program the largest single consumer of integrated circuits between 1961 and 1965. Design and production of the Block I Apollo computer consumed about 200,000 Micrologic elements.

Texas Instruments delivered 100,000 integrated circuit components by the end of 1964 to Autonetics Inc. for the Minuteman II guidance computer. In 1965, deliveries increased to 15, 000 per week, making the Air Force program the largest single consumer.

Long before the production phase was complete, even the two giants, Fairchild and Texas Instruments, dropped out. They apparently considered the Micrologic product line obsolete and moved on to “newer and better” products, more advanced technologies.

Fortunately for the Apollo Program, the Philco Corporation Microelectronics Division maintained production for the life of the project. The Apollo Program had a job to do. It could not continue the necessary design changes to keep up with the technology’s state of the art.

Summarizing: NASA plus the military gave integrated circuits a boost in their infancy. But well before the Apollo program reached the moon, commercial technology has leapt well past the space program.

You can draw your own conclusions from that. For me, it’s clear that I overstated my case in the original version of my previous post.

Given this, I have substantially revised my previous post. This is the first one that I’ve had to retract, even partially. Yes, I aim to be provocative, but I try to stay very solid on the economics and the technology as well. I blew this one by misreading the historical evidence—I won’t let it happen again.

My apologies,

Michael


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