The Brilliant Minds Behind Apollo Shine On

I wrote my memoir, The Step, to draw attention to the unsung heroes of the Apollo Program. The men and women who made up the technical team, instead of the astronauts who have historically received all the attention and the glory. I’ve been promoting my book and giving book talks for over a year now. I always mention the effort that was made to assemble this incredibly impressive, intelligent and hardworking scientific team that made this seemingly impossible feat, of landing a man on the moon, attainable. 

Last weekend I had the pleasure of addressing Mensa at their Annual Gathering in Hollywood, Florida. I ended my talk, as I usually do, with a Question & Answer session. One man named Bob Tewchuk raised his hand and asked, “Seems there is a rumor that 90% of the Apollo mission computer was code redundant. That is, 10% of the code contained the instructions, and 90% was used for error checking and to ensure there were no errors or crashes. A friend of mine told me this years ago, and I’d like to know if it’s true.”

I worked in PR not in computer programming, so I didn’t know the answer to his question. But I knew someone who would! I took down Bob’s information and promised I would get back to him with an answer. I forwarded his question to two of my former Apollo coworkers and friends, Kenneth Clark and Jim Handley. Here’s Ken’s reply:

“The term “code redundant” implies that there is code that is redundant for some reason such as to recompute a value for which the answer is known in order to verify correctness.  I doubt there was any of that in the flight computers and know for a fact there was none in the ground computers.  A second form might be some form of redundancy in hardware with identical software in the redundant hardware and some sort of voting logic to determine which hardware was correct.  The Launch Vehicle Digital Computer used triple modular redundancy (TMR) logic, but I don’t believe the code was replicated.  The Saturn Ground Launch Computers were not TMR.  However, the Mobile Launcher Computer did contain redundant set of code which was switched to if the primary memory encountered a parity error or no instruction alarm during execution.  I don’t know if the Apollo Guidance Computers contained any form of redundancy and don’t see any evidence of any in my investigation on the internet.

 On the subject of error checking, not even close to 90% of the code would be allocated to that task.  The amount of memory in any of the computers made it absolutely impossible for there to be much if any code in the computers to be used for error checking.  The error checking that existed was to determine if an operation requested or commanded by a program completed successfully.  There were some checks even in the Lunar Lander to report on unexpected errors.  An example of this was the Lunar Module program alarms minutes into the landing sequence (Error codes 1201 & 1202).

 Memory in the computers was mostly magnetic core.  Here are some examples of the memory sizes used in the computers

 Saturn Ground Launch Computers (RCA 110A) – 32 K 24 bit words + 1 parity bit

Instrument Unit Launch Vehicle  Digital Computer – 32 K 28 bit words including 2 parity bits

Apollo Guidance Computers — 2048 K words of erasable magnetic core memory and 36 K 16 bit words of read-only core rope memory.


Note:  There were 2 Apollo Guidance Computers in the spacecraft.  One in the Command Module and one in the Lunar Module.


Hope this helps,


Amazing that over fifty years later his memory is so precise. I called him a genius in my book and clearly he’s living up to the title.

The remarkable triumphs of that team have changed the trajectory of our country forever. The greatest minds of the time collected and working together were ever so powerful. Unfortunately, when Apollo ended the team was disbanded. Many of the brilliant scientists and engineers were sent packing or to sell typewriters.

Our space program has been stuck on the back shelf for years. As we stagnate China, Russia and private companies make leaps and bounds forward. It’s about time we revisit our treatment of the space program and recognize it’s importance in securing our future stability and respectability as a nation. I can think of two guys who would be perfect to head up the scientific team!

A note to those who doubt we went to the moon – By Martha Lemasters


One of my pet peeves is a group of conspiracy individuals who doubt if our astronauts ever actually went to the moon. They cite as evidence a flag that appears to be waving, and their belief that an astronaut in those heavy gloves couldn’t possibly work a camera. They believe it was all manufactured in a sound stage.

It saddens me that these non-believers even stalk the astronauts as they make speeches across the nation, calling them fakes and frauds.

I liken these folks to the following analogy:  If you stand at the edge of a beach near me, we can feel the cool saltwater wash over our bare feet. We can watch the gentle waves slowly erase the remains of a sand castle nearby. On a clear day, we can look out to see perhaps a dozen miles of rippling blue before it meets the horizon.

But how little this scene indicates of the ocean’s actual immensity! Thousands upon thousands of nautical miles expand beyond us, connecting the coasts of every continent. Profound depths lay beneath the surface and ceaseless activity of powerful currents impact the weather of the entire planet.

It’s easy to lose sight of this level of magnitude because the default of the human mind is to think far too small—and be content with that.

I believe it’s hard for a small human mind not educated as an engineer, physicist, or software engineer, or simply one who cannot think big, to comprehend the magnitude of what it took to put men on the moon.

More than 400,000 people worked on the Apollo Program, each contributing to the overall success of the moon landings. I was one of those people. Try to keep a secret to just a few of these people that we’re going to operate out of a sound stage?…not possible.

Yes, I am certain we went to the moon, in fact it was my company’s Instrument Unit that laid out the trajectory, programmed by honest, hard-working IBMers, who gave more than 10 years, three shifts a day to Apollo.

There were no clandestine meetings, no cover-ups; every meeting was documented and laid down for history. It was honest-to-goodness American ingenuity and hard work that took us to the moon and back.

I would draw the non-believers’ attention to the moon rocks that were brought back as evidence…more than 800 pounds, examined by numerous scientists and geologists and declared authentic, without a doubt.

I like Neil Armstrong’s comment to one of the non-believers when one of them put before him a Bible and asked him to swear on the Bible that he actually walked on the moon. “I’m afraid that Bible that you have there is fake too.”

Think for a minute of the immensity of the Apollo Program and all those who cannot believe it happened…then think about the even greater immensity of the power, the magnitude of God and you will see how so many people can refuse to believe in God…because the default of the human mind thinks too small.

Whatever is infinite in scope continually impels us to think bigger, to search bigger.

Be a big thinker!

History Forgotten: My Letter to the President & CEO of IBM


Blast off!

Blast off!

One of the main reasons I felt compelled to write my memoir The Step was to insure all of the hard working men and women who helped bring Apollo to fruition received proper credit. So much of the story has been forgotten in the history books. Our children learn the names of the astronauts, but have no concept of what a monumental accomplishment the Apollo project was, how many people were involved, or how crucial winning the space race was to the status of the US globally. I worked for IBM at Cape Kennedy, and I was disappointed to see upon visiting the company website, that it too had skipped over the contributions it’s employees made to the project. The following is my letter to IBM’s President & CEO.


Dear Ms Rometty,

I enjoyed almost ten years working for IBM at Cape Kennedy on the Apollo program. In looking up IBM’s website depicting its history from 1930-1979, I found only the following sentence about IBM ‘s commitment to our space program. “The latter half of the 1960’s saw IBM continue its support of space exploration, participating in the 1965 Gemini flights, 1966 Saturn flights and 1969 lunar mission.”

Several of my retired IBM friends have urged me to write you about a part of IBM history that you might not be aware. It’s all part of my book, The Step, which I am confident will also be made into a major motion picture. It deals with the IBM Apollo launch support team at Kennedy Space Center in the 60’s and 70’s.

As it states on the back cover, “The names of the astronauts will forever be inscribed in our history books, but the names of the entire Apollo launch support team at the Kennedy Space Center and the thousands who supported Apollo elsewhere will only be known to a few.

“It is the technical team, the engineers, analysts, programmers, and yes, even the secretaries and typists who kept the administrative side moving, who are portrayed in this book. This combined team, after achieving an unbelievable goal of launching men on the moon within the 10-year limit set by Kennedy, performed in an exemplary manner.”

I believe they were the greatest technological team ever assembled, achieving the most difficult challenge of all mankind to date. I speak from experience; I was a PR writer for IBM, coming up from the ranks of secretary and finally to a writing position. I wrote about these people. I know the sacrifices …the commitment was intense. There were Apollo IBMers at the Cape, Houston, Huntsville, Owego and Gaithersburg. In the Epilogue section, I added the following historical notes:

“Following the Apollo Program, including Skylab and Apollo/Soyuz, IBM won the Space Shuttle Launch Processing contract, as well as two other key Shuttle systems: Spacelab Integration, with McDonnell-Douglas, and Cargo Integration Test Equipment. A third group at KSC (Shuttle Test & Operations) supported Shuttle launches.

“Under the leadership of CEO Louis Gerstner, Jr., the Federal Systems Division of IBM, whose employees had excelled in all aspects of this country’s space program, was sold in 1994 to Loral Corporation much to the dismay of NASA and the heartbreak of thousands of IBMers. In 1995, Loral sold its defense electronics and systems integration business to Lockheed Martin. The following year, several of those former Loral units were spun off by Lockheed Martin to become the core of L-3 Communications. “

My closing words of The Step include: “I hope I’ve given you a small glimpse into what it was like for a woman working among all that testosterone of dedicated engineers, and astronauts, and everyday people…all committed to a national goal…in those unforgettable years…when IBM’s banner was never flown higher, nor shined brighter, than the years of Apollo…when we all had “The Step.”

Recently I took my cousin on a NASA bus tour through Kennedy Space Center. There on display was the giant Saturn V vehicle, separated into stages but nowhere were the names of the contractors displayed…it was as if NASA had done everything. The lack of recognition for the contractors doesn’t change history and the fact that there were many unsung heroes, brilliant systems engineers, analysts, programmers, doing things that had never been done before, toiling away behind the scenes that made this momentous, game-changing feat happen.

Now, NASA is constructing a new building, entitled “Heroes and Legends,” again dedicated to the astronauts. When I was asked to write down my thoughts about the tour, I wrote, “If you really want to get the Visitor’s Center correct, the history has to be accurate. If it were me, I’d dedicate a whole wing to The Team, who achieved an unbelievable goal. That wing should include all the contractors’ names. This amazing team, made up of the very brightest and best that America had to offer, is the team that time has forgotten.

Recently I watched the movie, Jobs, the story of Steve Jobs’ life. In one scene, he makes the statement that the launch of Macintosh was the second greatest thing to happen in this century, behind the Allies winning World War II. Well, he was wrong, the incident that wins is the launch of men to the moon and safely returning them home. IBM was a crucial part of that history. I implore you to read my book and ask yourself why in the world doesn’t IBM embrace this history?


Martha Lemasters