program, the computers were
created under intense pressure:
Kennedy’s “We choose to go to
the moon in this decade” speech
in 1962 gave the program a firm
deadline, and the memories of
his assassination a year later
only increased the weight of his
words. In contrast to later
decades, the NASA of the 1960s
was that rare government program with both a purpose and a
deadline, as well as a burning collective desire to get the job done.
In 1961, during the very
early stages of the design of Apollo
and its Saturn booster, NASA contacted MIT to study the feasibility of a
digital control system for Apollo.
According to, Dag Spicer, the senior
curator of Silicon Valley’s Computer
History Museum ( www.computer
history.org), the driving force
behind the design of the Apollo
Guidance Computer was a cyberneti-
Charles Stark Draper and Werner von Braun
in front of the Apollo Guidance Computer.
Raytheon employees assemble the first Apollo
Guidance Computers, circa, 1962.
cist at MIT named Charles Stark
Draper, for whom the university
named a laboratory devoted to studying and measuring motion.
Draper and the men under him
cut their teeth working on the
Poseidon and Polaris guided missiles.
“His expertise was basically how to
point missiles and make them go
where you wanted them to go” Spicer
says, adding, “It was very Cold War
research-related: how do you make
guidance systems that allow bombs
to get as close to their targets as possible.” This makes sense because, as
Spicer notes, “You know, a rocket is
just a missile with a person on top; it’s
basically all the same technology.”
(In the early 1970s, MIT succumbed
to the anti-war protestors of the time