Integrated Circuits and the Space Program: A Partial Retraction

Posted by: Michael Mandel on July 19

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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Reader Comments

Joe Cushing

July 19, 2009 06:42 PM

Maybe you overstated but your last post makes a good point. In 1965 Most people probably thought we would have a permanent presence on the moon by now. There has been no space revolution--just tiny incremental achievements each decade. The space revolution will happen 20 to 30 years after private business moves into space travel. We are almost there. The first practical use is that a trip from Detroit to Tokyo can take 30 min. Then itcan't be predicted where the revolution will go.

anonymous sometimes NASA contractor

July 19, 2009 07:58 PM

And thank goodness for the absence of a space revolution. The only bigger waste of money in the world than NASA is the US DoD. We spend $15 billion/year on NASA, and only $3 billion/year on cancer research. With the money we spend on space, we could have cured both cancer and aging by now.

LAO

July 19, 2009 09:46 PM

Perhaps you were expecting that the space program would have delivered other worlds to exploit by now???

CompEng

July 20, 2009 11:46 AM

I'm with Carl Sagan on this one: colonization of other planets is a long-term requirement for the survival of the human species. The primary purpose of national and international space programs is to support that goal. Any other economic benefits are also welcome.

Tom

July 20, 2009 07:13 PM

Michael: your claim that commercial technology leaped past the defense/NASA technology simply isn't true. The space and defense programs funded basic research in Universities and in Corporations, that fundamentally changed many engineering, scientific and mathematical fields. That long-term research planning and the rigorous engineering during those programs changed many companies from hobby shops to rigorous engineering shops whose research/development paralleled the successful AT&T Bell Lab model. I've seen this rigor spill over into the Commerical companies --not the other way around. Use of older ICs is not proof that the space program was behind the commerical programs. It merely indicates that the space-program engineers properly froze a hardware baseline upon which thousands of engineering decisions depended. This was done early in the program. It does not show that the program was behind commerical technology.

MG

July 21, 2009 08:49 AM

And here are some more outcomes of the space program

http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9135700/Image_gallery_10_Apollo_era_technologies_used_today_?pageNumber=2

Thank you for your interest. This blog is no longer active.

 

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Michael Mandel, BW's award-winning chief economist, provides his unique perspective on the hot economic issues of the day. From globalization to the future of work to the ups and downs of the financial markets, Mandel-named 2006 economic journalist of the year by the World Leadership Forum-offers cutting edge analysis and commentary.

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