That’s one small, inventive-step for a man…

The patents that took us to the Moon, and beyond.

14th July 2019

Lunar or later we were going to have to write about the Moon landing

By today’s standards, the 73 kilobytes of memory available to the Apollo Guidance Computer is laughable. The web page you are reading this on — the one you barely noticed your browser loading — probably has a payload in excess of 250kb. You may watch the grainy black and white footage of the Moon landing and wonder ‘how did they do it?’, but the seemingly primitive tech that sent man to the Moon was groundbreaking for the time.

For example, the aforementioned Guidance Computer, with its 589,824 ones and zeros, was the smallest and fastest computer of the era. And the Saturn 5 – the rocket that took the astronauts into space? That comprised 3 million moving parts, stood 363 feet tall, weighed 2,970 tonnes and generated a power output at liftoff roughly equivalent to 85 Hoover Dams. It is still regarded as one of — if not the — most complex machines ever built.

These momentous feats of technology required more technicians than can be credited in this article to say the least. NASA needed over 400,000 people to help Neil and Buzz set foot on the Moon. The workforce obviously included the too often forgotten Command Module Pilot Michael Collins, and hosts of engineers, scientists, mechanics, technicians, pilots, divers, seamstresses, secretaries and others who worked tirelessly behind the scenes.

And there were countless more who didn’t even work for NASA; inventors who never imagined that their ideas would one day help man walk on the Moon. Here are some of the lesser-known innovators whose inventions were integral to the Apollo missions.

Charles Stark Draper (US 2,752,790 — Gyroscopic apparatus); developed gyroscope systems that stabilised gunsights and bombsights, which were later expanded to an inertial guidance system for launching long-range missiles at supersonic jets. He subsequently developed the Spatial Inertial Reference Equipment (SPIRE) system for automatic aeronautical navigation, and his Instrumentation Lab at MIT was awarded the Project Apollo contract for guiding man to the Moon.

Kenneth C. Jordan & John Birden (US 2,913,510 — Radioactive battery); invented the radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG). RTGs provide steady, reliable power and have little or no sensitivity to cold, radiation, or other features of the space environment, making them ideal for extra-terrestrial exploration. RTGs have become essential for many space missions, including the Apollo missions, the Voyager missions exploring Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, and recently the Cassini mission to Saturn and its moons.

Saturn and its rings from the Cassini mission: “The Day the Earth Smiled” — the Earth and Moon can be seen as a faint dot just below and to the right of Saturn (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI) #selfie

Samuel Alderson (US 3,010,223 — Human equivalent dummy); pioneered the development of the crash test dummy, providing engineers with valuable information, enabling them to design more effective safety features including seat belts and airbags. Alderson developed a dummy for use by the U.S. military to test parachutes and ejection seats and later for NASA to simulate the splashdown of the Apollo nose cones. The current automotive industry-standard dummy for frontal crash testing is a lineal descendant of one Alderson began manufacturing for the aerospace industry in the early 1950s.

Beatrice Hicks (US 3,046,369 — Device for sensing gas density); invented a gas density sensor for use in devices that relied on gas-phase materials as insulators or fuels. Her sensor activated a switch when the density reached a critical value, an innovation that made possible the development of advanced technologies of the time and was a critical breakthrough to enabling space travel. Hicks’s apparatus sensed the actual amount of gas — rather than just the pressure — in the container over a range of temperatures and pressures. It was used in the ignition systems on the Saturn V rockets that launched the Apollo Moon missions.

Maxime Faget (US 3,702,688 — Space shuttle vehicle and system); conceived and designed the first space capsule, Mercury, from which the designs for the Gemini capsule and the Apollo command and service modules, and eventually the space shuttle, were derived. His advances arose from his realisation that a space capsule would have to withstand great G-Force and friction upon re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. His designs allowed for the spacecraft to slow down in the upper part of the atmosphere causing less friction and G-force.

Leaping forward fifty years since the Eagle first landed, the pace of space innovation has rocketed. While Velcro, Teflon, smartphone cameras and baby formula are inventions often attributed to NASA’s space program (this list contains some myths to be busted in another blog), advancement in space travel has been the mission in recent years. Rockets are now being built by SpaceX, Blue Origin, Rocket Labs and Virgin Galactic, which are battling it out to the space race of our generation. Not for glory, but for profit. Well, maybe a little glory.

The shift from public to private sector funding of space exploration has been dramatic. In 1969, when Apollo 11 touched down, NASA was light years ahead of all other patent filers in the B64G classification, which relates to ‘Cosmonautics’. But if you cut through the fabric of time and space to 2016, the most active patentee is Boeing, with NASA now relegated to 59th place – an unavoidable dethroning, given NASA’s significant budget cuts over time.

The sharp decline in NASA filings coincides with the scaling back of the Shuttle program in the mid-90s

With the private sector now engaged in space exploration, the Moonbase that we were promised as kids seems like a near-future reality. The prospect of a colony in which we can live and work on the moon does prompt the question of where patents will be filed for technology invented beyond Earth.

Luckily, The Lunar Embassy Corporation seems to have this one covered! It has been selling real estate on the Moon and other planets since 1980 with over 5 million plots covering over 611 million acres sold to date. The company claims to have established a democratic republic with a ratified constitution, a Congress, its own currency and… even a patent office. We would recommend sticking to Earth for patent filings for the time being, but a Patently Tranquility Base Office sounds like it would be fun.

To be fair, it’s the Sun and not the Moon that is our main concern right now. We think it’s time to find a G&T and the factor 50!

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