6–10 January 2020
Hyatt Regency Orlando,
Orlando, Florida

Engineers, Astronaut Discuss Their Apollo Experiences


Moderator John Tylko, chief innovation officer, Aurora Flight Sciences; Don Eyles, author and retired computer scientist, MIT Instrumentation Lab; Bill Widnall, MIT Instrumentation Laboratory engineer and developer of the digital autopilot for the Apollo lunar module; David Scott, Gemini VIII, Apollo 9 and Apollo 15 and Apollo guidance computer operator

by Hannah Thoreson, AIAA Social Media Content Specialist

AIAA SCITECH FORUM, San Diego, Jan. 8, 2019 — During the “Engineering Apollo” panel, several engineers and an astronaut who landed on the moon discussed what it was like working on the Apollo program computer systems.

Bill Widnall, former director of control and flight dynamics at MIT Instrumentation Lab, said he was in the right place at the right time.

“My first assignment as a research assistant was to develop the simulations that could be used to try out the flight software,” he said, adding that he also came up with one failsafe used by the Apollo program. “I was very proud that I put into it the ability to use the lunar module to push the command service module.”

Don Eyles, an author and a retired computer scientist who also worked at MIT Instrumentation Lab, said computers of that era were extremely slow.

“It took several hours to run one landing simulation,” he said, adding that extra information from Earth radars was vital for landing accurately.


Participants in the panel discussion “Engineering Apollo,” Jan. 8 at the 2019 AIAA Science and Technology Forum and Exposition (AIAA SciTech 2019) in San Diego.

Eyles said some of the Apollo simulations ran on “hybrid” digital-analog computers. John Tylko, who teaches the Engineering Apollo course at MIT, explained, “At the time Apollo occurred, we were at this transition between analog and digital; and at the time, analog was faster.”

David Scott, a NASA astronaut who landed on the moon during the Apollo 15 mission, discussed the digital transformation in terms of what it meant for the astronauts.

“We learned through their programming that we could do almost anything with this computer,” he said. “It’s actually amazing capability in the software to enable the operator to do all these things.”

Watch the full video for more details.

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