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    Saturday, December 7, 2019-6:02:53A.M.






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OPINION | Lessons from a trip to the moon

FIFTY years ago, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were 30,000 feet above the moon and descending in the lunar module.

Behind their seats was the 70-pound Apollo Guidance Computer, with 2,800 Fairchild Semiconductor integrated circuits, each containing two logic gates and running at a speed of 43 kilohertz. It was programmed for the physics of a lunar landing, able to read data like speed, angle, altitude and fuel remaining. But a warning horn sounded. Mr. Aldrin typed 5-9-Enter on a keypad and the machine displayed the error code “1202.” In all their simulations in Houston — so many the “abort” button label practically rubbed off — they had never seen a 1202. So Armstrong asked.

Each program in the guidance computer used a 12-word, 16-bit data-storage unit known as a Core Set. The system had handled countless complicated tasks through the takeoff, approach and orbit, but something had gone wrong during the landing attempt. Turns out a radar used to track the Command Module was overrunning the Core Sets with bad data. Fortunately, the guidance computer had been designed to crash and reboot when that happened, and not lose data so it could continue its guidance function.

Imagine sitting in a tin can, about to make history, trusting a computer with your life, already white-knuckled, and getting the early equivalent of the Microsoft Blue Screen of Death. Each time the alarm sounded, the display went blank for 10 seconds as the computer crashed and rebooted. There were five alarms and crashes in four minutes, the last at 2,000 feet. With no clear sign of any systems malfunctioning, the astronauts and Mission Control scrambled to make sense. Armstrong’s heart rate hit 150. The display finally returned 800 feet above the lunar surface. Noting no data was lost, the flight controller in Houston, Charlie Duke, replied, “Eagle, looking great. You’re GO.”

There are many lessons from Apollo 11, and you’ll hear them all week. First, timing is everything: Inspired by John F. Kennedy, all six lunar landings occurred during Richard Nixon’s first term. Another obvious and overlooked lesson is that technology is an indispensable yet imperfect tool. I’ve had my iPhone crash trying to hail an Uber. I know, First World problem.

Apollo 11 was a source of pride, but also confusion. Whenever hurricanes and other freaky weather hit in the ’70s, my grandmother would explain it by insisting, “They touched something up there on the moon.” Sadly, climate thinking hasn’t advanced much.

People often ask whether space exploration is worth the cost. I’ve certainly been in and out of the “We went to the moon and all we got were Velcro and Tang” camp. Doubters now insist the money should have been spent to fight poverty in inner cities.

Sure, NASA was never productive or scaled to launch thousands or millions of us into space. But it did spark an era of hard science and forced engineering schools to deliver talent. NASA was one of the first major buyers of integrated circuits, a marvel of quantum physics. But we also got rockets, satellites and cheap digital communications — all required for that Uber ride. Those technology spinoffs have created trillion-dollar industries and enough societal wealth finally to tackle poverty and other problems. Maybe it all would have happened without a moon landing. But counterfactual history is for movie plots.

Perhaps the public-sector green/clean movement will have similar productive byproducts: molten-salt energy storage, bio-benign plastic (I hate paper straws!) or fabrics that generate electricity as you jog. I’m not advocating giant government projects — just encouraging big, hairy, audacious goals. Government seeds, industry grows.

The spiritual lessons might be the loftiest. In Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey” — based on a 1948 Arthur C. Clarke short story — black monoliths keep showing up: first on earth, then the moon, on Jupiter and finally in the fifth dimension. Confusing. There are lots of guesses about what that all meant. I like the simplest — that some higher being put those monoliths just out of man’s reach to stimulate our desire to progress civilization enough to reach them. With each achievement the goal posts move further out of reach, just like life. The moon itself was our real-life monolith. It was out there, beyond our reach, until it wasn’t. And progress is a continuum — on to the next goal.

So was the moon landing one giant leap? A quest for greatness? I don’t know; maybe it was just a really cool thing to do. If nothing else, the manned spaceflight provided psychic energy for many decades. What manager hasn’t demanded, “If we could put a man on the moon, surely you can finish this project on deadline”? But for careers, goals and life, I like the “1202” lesson: Ignore confusing signals telling you to stop.