Monday, July 19, 2021

Dusty Docs out the Airlocks

I got an e–mail from someone who was searching for information about the onboard computers on the Viking Mars landers, those brave little robots of beloved memory. He had found my resume online ( and saw that I was part of the team that developed the deorbit burn targeting software for the landers. He assumed that that software was loaded into the onboard computers and therefore I would be able to answer his questions about those computers’ architecture.

Alas, I had to tell him that I knew nothing about the onboard computers. The Viking software I worked on was developed on a ground–based computer, a CDC 6600, a stupendously powerful scientific/engineering computer for its time. During the missions, the software ran on another ground–based computer, a less stupendously powerful but still pretty nifty Univac 1108.

He told me he had been searching online for documentation about the onboard computers but had found little. I commiserated, saying that I have sometimes tried to find documents about my work on Apollo at NASA, including documents I myself wrote, but with no luck.

When I was working there, I saw thick notebooks filled with details about computer architecture, hardware specifications, and mission minutiae. NASA was fanatical about having everything written down to the finest level of detail. That applied both to work done inside NASA and to work performed at contractor sites, such as the Viking software development I was later involved with at Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin). I’m sure all of that paperwork still exists, but unfortunately, it hasn’t been digitized.

By the way, the process to produce it was tedious and painstaking.

We engineers wrote our documents by hand. Yes, children, by hand! Any needed charts or illustrations were also done by hand, sometimes by the engineers, sometimes by graphic artists. In my case, I cut and pasted tables from computer printout onto sheets of paper and inserted them into the handwritten document. All of this was then typed by clerical workers in the approved format. The engineer proofread the typed document, made any needed changes, had pages retyped if necessary, and sent the document to the editing department, which did its damage (e.g., insisting on approved NASA spelling, such as “alinement” instead of “alignment). The edited document was then retyped as necessary. Finally, copies were made and sent to those who needed to see the document, and a copy was sent to an archive, a library of some sort.

I think the people who did all the typing had some sort of very primitive word processor—in effect, an electric typewriter with memory. Still, it was all very primitive, and quite a contrast to the cutting–edge technology that was taking men to the moon.

Some years later, I wrote a simple document formatting program in FORTRAN. I hoped to use it to print out short stories and novels in the proper format for submission to magazines and publishers. Still later, when I had a desktop computer, I tried writing a word processor in C. It was fun, but it soon became pointless as commercial word processors made their appearance. How we would have loved those back in my Apollo days!

Some random bits and pieces of NASA documents have been put online, often by people outside the government. It’s peripheral material, not the important stuff.

For example, someone on a social network challenged me to prove that I had worked on Apollo. Foolishly, I didn’t put the twat on permanent Ignore and instead went looking online for old Apollo documents of mine, feeling sure that I would find them. I didn’t. I did find a site with digitized versions of attendance lists of some meetings held at NASA/Houston during Apollo. There were a lot of those meetings, and I was in quite a few of them. There I was, listed as an attendee at some.

It was enough to stifle the twat. It also made me realize how little of the immense storehouse of data, vital to historians of technology, is still only available in original, hardcopy form.

This is potentially tragic. How many hard copies of those documents exist? How widely separated are they? How well protected from fire and flood? How close are we to losing a huge part of the history of Man’s greatest technological achievement?

It’s possible that the important stuff is still classified, as it was at the time. The wasn’t because we were working on secret military projects, but because we were using data with military relevance. Specifically, mission dates were classified because the Evil Adversary (i.e., the Soviet Union) could use those to extrapolate the geographical positions of a big part of America’s military resources, especially naval resources, for the duration of the mission and for many days before launch.

Of course none of that should matter now, decades later. However, as I vaguely remember, such classification lasts for a very long time, perhaps forever. I believe the classification can be removed at any time by presidential order. Surely this is the time to do that and to allocate funds to digitize everything, to make copies and backups of the digitized documents, and to make all of them available free online.

Yes, it would be cool on a personal level. I’d love to be able to download copies of everything I wrote back then, although it would probably depress me to see how little of it I could now understand. (I’m pretty sure I understood it when I wrote it.) But such documents are of greater importance than the personal. Our understanding of history is built on such little details—on the innumerable minor deeds of innumerable minor people—and not just on the grand actions of great men.

I don’t think we can afford to lose those immense stacks of paper, and I suspect we’re in danger of doing so.

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