Postmortems

A deep dive into the Apollo Guidance Computer, and the hack that saved Apollo 14

A look at the hack used to bypass the troublesome ABORT signal being produced to ensure a successful moon landing for Apollo 14.

In the afternoon of January 31, 1971, the flight thundered away from the Kennedy Space Center on its Saturn V launch vehicle after only a brief 40 minute hold for weather. After restarting the S-IVB third stage for trans-lunar injection (TLI), the command module Kitty Hawk and her crew were on their way to the Moon.
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However, less than four hours before the scheduled landing, controllers noticed that according to the indications on their consoles in Mission Control, the LM’s Abort pushbutton appeared to have been pressed. When asked via radio, Shepard confirmed that no one on board Antares had pressed the Abort button—which meant there was a short-circuit or other electrical issue somewhere inside the LM’s complicated guts.

This was potentially a mission-ending problem: if the button was pressed and the engine was firing, the LM would immediately begin its abort procedure as soon as the lunar descent started, making a landing impossible.

Under hard time pressure, the ground had to quickly figure out what was wrong and devise a workaround. What they came up with was the most brilliant computer hack of the entire Apollo program, and possibly in the entire history of electronic computing.

To explain exactly what the hack was, how it functioned, and the issues facing the developers during its creation, we need to dig deep into how the Apollo Guidance Computer worked. Hold onto your hats, Ars readers—we’re going in.

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