“Today, your cell phone has more computer power than all of NASA back in 1969, when it placed two astronauts on the moon.” (Michio Kaku)
It seems hard to believe, but this statement is in fact true – a handheld device we all own has greater computational capabilities than the machines used for guiding spacecrafts through outer space some 45 years ago.
Numerous IBM System/ 360 Model 75 mainframe computers, costing around $3.5 million apiece, all while taking up a lot of space were running at NASA at the time.
These machines could perform a couple hundred thousand-addition operations per second, with their total memory capacity in the megabyte range.
As for the 32 kilogram Apollo Guidance Computer, which the Apollo 11 Command Module had on board, it was a machine that had 64 kilobytes of memory and operated at 0.043MHz.
The iPhone 5s, which can easily fit into any pocket, has a CPU running speed of up to 1.3GHz, which can execute millions of calculations per second.
The phone also includes 1GB of RAM, which can easily store the 6 megabytes of code that NASA developed to monitor the status of its spacecrafts and astronauts in 1969.
A couple years later, in 1975, a supercomputer called Cray-1 emerged. It was capable of 80MHz, and generally used for scientific projects, such as simulating the interaction of fluids. This device helped render the CGI for the first Tron movie, which was released in 1982.
However, the Cray-1’s raw computational power of 80 million floating-point operations per second (FLOPS) is nothing compared to the standard graphics unit inside the iPhone 5s, which produces around 77 GFLOPS – almost 1000 times more.
10 years after the Cray-1 was created, the Cray-2 was released in 1990, and was the world’s fastest supercomputer. But even with a performance of around 1.9 GFLOPS, the machine still ranks behind the iPhone when it comes to GFLOPS ratings.
So, when you consider all those amazing manned missions to the moon, and what it required to get there, remember that had the complexities of the final AGC been understood when the NASA began to design it, they would have likely never started, as they would have considered the computer far outside the available technology of the day.
In years to come, people will look at the iPhones and smartphones of today, so obsolete and so out-of-date toys that humans had to deal with to communicate.
Also read: Space-based solar power: Powering the earth