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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Gemini's onboard digital computer

by Mark Ollig


Many of us can nostalgically recall the feelings of excitement and adventure during the early years of NASA’s space program.

President Kennedy made a bold challenge in 1961, for the United States to commit itself, before the decade of the ‘60s was over, to achieving the goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

The US was up to this challenge.

July 20, 1969, Apollo 11’s Lunar Module (LM) called Eagle, carried astronauts Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, to a safe landing on the surface of the moon.

Instead of “a man” or one person landing on the moon as Kennedy envisioned, the US came through with two people landing there at the same time.

Not bad, not too bad at all.

A third astronaut, Michael Collins, orbited the moon in the Apollo 11 Command Module (CM) called Columbia.

Aldrin and Armstrong would blast off from the moon to rendezvous and dock with the CM after completing their extravehicular activity (EVA) on the lunar surface.

All three astronauts did “return safely to the earth.”

In order to achieve this historical accomplishment, much testing in space was needed.

In 1962, the computer folks at IBM, in their Space Guidance Center in Owego, NY, began building an on-board guidance computer (OBC), to be installed in NASA’s Gemini spacecraft.

This computer would assist Gemini astronauts in completing a number of important accomplishments during the early days of NASA’s manned space program.

The Gemini 3 astronauts first used the OBC March 23, 1965.
A similar, but more advanced onboard computer, would later be built for the future Apollo spacecraft moon missions.

In preparation for the moon trip, a series of Gemini spacecraft missions successfully tested numerous procedures, and completed various objectives.

Successful firsts during the Gemini space program, using its onboard digital guidance computer, included:

• Maneuvering an orbiting spacecraft.

• Rendezvousing procedures with another spacecraft for docking.

• Navigating in space.

• Maintaining a controlled earth-reentry using an onboard computer.

For its time, Gemini’s onboard guidance computer was considered an advanced technological piece of electronics.

It was designed with a pushbutton data input interface, making it easily operable by the spacecraft’s crew.

The OBC could perform highly-complex calculations (over 7,000 per second) used for space maneuvering, course guidance, navigation, and other operations.

Physically, the Gemini OBC weighed almost 59 pounds, and its dimensions measured 18.9 inches high by 14.5 inches wide by 12.75 inches deep.

The OBC was made up of peripheral hardware devices, and was located in an equipment bay wall, to the left of the Gemini spacecraft commander’s seat.

The computer’s guidance control-panel contained a seven-segment display readout, a modular display keyboard with push buttons labeled: “Zero” and “1 through “9,” along with three other push buttons labeled: “READ OUT,” “CLEAR,” and “ENTER,” and a variety of indication lamps, and rotary switches.

Its high-level flight operational software was designed to be used within assigned program modules; whereby each module performed a specific logic-processing function.

The Gemini OBC could process data sent from computing telemetry systems on the ground, or via keyboarding of data by an astronaut inside the spacecraft.

During liftoff from the Earth, a Gemini spacecraft would be attached atop a Titan II rocket called the Gemini Launch Vehicle (GLV).

The Titan was equipped with its own guidance computer.

This computer adjusted the rocket’s velocity, and made any course corrections needed for getting the Gemini spacecraft into the correct earth-orbiting path.

Information from the Titan computers was relayed to Gemini’s onboard computer.

In the event of a Titan computer failure, the onboard computer could take over and calculate any needed altitude course changes.

One special mission saw the Gemini 6 spacecraft using its onboard computer for not only supporting its orbit, but for calculating rendezvous maneuvering trajectories used to align itself with another spacecraft in Earth orbit; Gemini 7.

Dec. 15, 1965, 160 miles above the Earth, Gemini 6 and Gemini 7 conducted the first successful maneuvering and rendezvous between two earth-orbiting spacecraft.

Gemini 7 was used as the rendezvous target for Gemini 6’s onboard computer.

Both spacecraft came within 1 foot of each other, and could have physically hard-docked, if they had been so designed.

This ship-to-ship rendezvous maneuver needed to work in order to prove a future Apollo CM and LM spacecraft could successfully rendezvous with each other, while orbiting the moon.

You can watch the orbital rendezvous of Gemini 6 and 7 on the Discovery YouTube channel:

President Kennedy’s speech before a joint session of congress May 25, 1961, included his strong support of our country’s space program.

The portion of his speech urging the US to go to the moon can be viewed at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum website:

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Real-time government website analytics

by Mark Ollig             

Google’s Digital Analytics Program provides visitor data for more than 3,800 US government websites.

While writing this column early last Wednesday morning, yours truly visited the US government’s analytics website.

On its homepage, in large type-font, it read, “88,712 people on government websites now.”

This denotes the current total number of users/connections which have accessed any one of 3,800 government websites/pages being tracked.

Below this number, a bar graph displays each hour, and the number of visitors during that hour.

During the last 90 days, more than 1.47 billion visits were made to government websites.

The right-hand side of the analytics webpage displays the “Top 20” individual websites being visited.

The number of users currently in the Top 20 was shown in real-time, and included links for viewing total visits from the last seven or 30 days.

During the last seven days, the most visited website, with 14,651,478 visitors, was the Internal Revenue Service,

While typing, I noticed the total number of people using government websites had jumped to 95,157.

I was surprised. The numbers are not remaining static on the analytics webpage.

They were changing; in real-time.

Being curious, I took out my smartphone, tapped the stopwatch app, and waited until the total number changed; I then quickly pressed the stopwatch’s “start” button.

About 60 seconds later, the total count changed again – the numbers were automatically refreshing every minute.

Currently, the most popular government website page is showing 3,014 visitors.

You guessed it; it is “Where’s My Refund?” located at:

Just as I finished typing this sentence, its visitor total increased to 3,085.

These analytics provide an inside look; in real-time, on the number of people interacting within the federal government’s online public department, and agency websites.

The information under the “Now” column of the Top 20 data, shows current visit totals to a specific, single webpage; whereas, the “7 Days” and “30 Days” data provides archived visit totals to a website’s main domain name; including all its sub-webpages.

Once again, looking at the total number of folks using government websites, I noted it had jumped to 102,126.

The current time is 7:50 a.m. where I am right now, so I imagine more folks have gotten their cup of coffee, and are logging into these sites.

The “Where’s My Refund?” webpage currently shows 3,147 visitors.

Number-two in the Top 20, is the National Weather Service:, with 1,624.

The US Social Security Administrations’ webpage (currently ranked at seventh) showed 818 visitors using

The Astronomy Picture of the Day at was at number 12, with 612 visitors.

Much of the accumulated data is stored on this analytics website, and can be downloaded using the JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) file format.

If you’re curious as to where each of the 3,800 websites go to, you can download all of them as a .cvs (comma/character-separated value) file at

Yours truly downloaded this file, and opened it using my Excel program.

I discovered, as of last Wednesday, the analytics from 3,824 government websites are currently being tracked.

The spreadsheet’s A cell column shows the website URL (Uniform Resource Identifier) location, and its government branch name or department is listed in the B cell column.

This spreadsheet file would make an excellent reference for looking up particular government departments or agencies names; including their website URL.

One of the 3,824 includes a Minnesota reference. Line 2,136 shows webpage: 

This webpage is from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service main domain website, 

Here is the full URL, including the Minnesota portal link,

I smiled upon seeing what was referenced in column A on line 2,153 of the spreadsheet.

It read,

I didn’t know the government had a sense of humor.

Column B on line 2,153 describes the money factory as belonging to the Department of Treasury.

I visited this webpage, and it turns out the money factory is the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

As I finish this column, there are now 152,143 people, sharing amongst them, some 3,824 assorted government websites.

Of the Top 20 government webpages, the leader is still Where’s My Refund? with 3,883 visitors.

To see more US government analytic website information, and view the updated, real-time website activity (which is kind of fun), check out

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Creating software to last 100 years

by Mark Ollig

Imagine computer software programs from today, operating harmoniously with computing devices and data networks being used 100 years from now.

Sound impossible?

Well, hang on, folks; plans are in the works for creating such software.

One branch of our government is working on creating long-lasting, self-adapting computer software programs, capable of remaining “robust and functional” for at least 100 years.

The US military’s research and developments Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is taking the initiative in creating new technologies to support adjustable and seemingly “future proof” software.

DARPA recently began a new research program, called Building Resource Adaptive Software Systems (BRASS).

BRASS is investigating how to eliminate the time-consuming, and repeated updating and upgrading of military software systems; all while maintaining network security.

Advances will be required to develop “new linguistic abstractions, formal methods, and resource-aware program analyses to discover and specify program transformations, as well as systems designed to monitor changes in the surrounding networked digital ecosystem,” according to a news release on DARPA’s website.

A new, forward-looking software programming platform would have extraordinary flexibility, security, and longevity.

BRASS will work towards the effortless maintainability of this new software; allowing it to seamlessly adjust itself to any new computing operating conditions.

Software not updated for adapting to new operating conditions may weaken the networks’ cyber-secure infrastructure, and degrade its ability to reliably maintain its digital information content.

“Ensuring applications continue to function correctly and efficiently in the face of a changing operational environment is a formidable challenge,” said Suresh Jagannathan, DARPA program manager.

BRASS is undertaking what it calls “an entirely new clean-slate approach to software design, composition and adaption.”

The goal is the creation of a software platform which is survivable, adaptive, and long-lived.

This new software system will incorporate scalability; it needs to take into account hardware or other software changes, in order to operate at maximum efficiency.

One can only imagine the highly structured, procedure-solving algorithmic programs and protocols, the code developers will come up with for maintaining the reliability, adaptability, and security of a software platform with an intended lifespan of 100 years.

DARPA’s 51-page BRASS solicitation research proposal (pdf file) from April 7, describes in detail, their desire for the “tools” needed for constructing “long-lived, survivable, and scalable adaptive software systems.”

You can view this document file at:

After reading through the proposal, it seems to me this is a request for developers to engineer a brand-new software ecosystem.

The research and development challenges will be enormous for implementing such a paradigm software platform.

I imagine it will take many years for it to be fully developed.

This new software design will interact with other software and hardware; learning how to adapt its “behavior,” if you will; co-existing and operating in congruence with the software programs and hardware devices it encounters in the future.

DARPA provided an artist’s concept image of what this 100-year software system might look like, as it adapts to resource changes:

We are all witness to the lightning speed at which technology is advancing.

Will data handled and processed by the military, government agencies, and us, be someday networked over an “advanced Internet” via an intelligent, autonomous, self-supporting, hyper-complex software platform with a 100-year lifespan?

Stay tuned.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

When computers became 'personal'

by Mark Ollig

Inside the San Francisco Civic Auditorium and Brooks Hall April 16, 1977 a first-of-its-kind computer exposition was opening - The West Coast Computer Faire.

Here, one could attend computer-related conferences, technical seminars, and check out the newest microcomputers tailored for small business and individuals.

The Faire had tutorials for computer novices, computer games, speech recognition systems, musical synthesizers, and many electronic devices; including one for providing “Projection TV.”

During the Faire, two young men: Steve Wozniak, 26; and Steve Jobs, 22 introduced their new Apple II computer.

As we all know, the Apple II became one of the first popular home computers, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Tandy/Radio Shack’s TRS-80 Micro Computer System, and the Commodore PET (Personal Electronic Transactor) computer were also introduced during the Faire.

The Faire was well-represented by people from the home computer hobbyist community; including the two largest amateur computer organizations: the Homebrew Computer Club, and the Southern California Computer Society.

This event showcased 180 exhibitors, and the official attendance over the two days it took place was 12,657.

A variety of computer systems were on display, including a 1,200 bps (bits per second) Dataspeed 40 terminal, featuring a keyboard, CRT (cathode ray tube) display screen, and small printer.

This data terminal system was made by the Teletype Corporation, which, in 1977, was a subsidiary of Western Electric Company.

A Bell System magazine ad from the time, featuring the Dataspeed 40 terminal system, can be seen at

A computing game called Tank War was being played on the Cromemco Z-2 microcomputer system.

Two military tanks (seen on the computer’s terminal screen) could be maneuvered and controlled by individual players.

Tank War included sound effects, and proved to be very popular with the younger kids, who controlled the game’s action using two joysticks.

Two other games, Space War, and Chase, were also played on the Cromemco Z-2.

The Cromemco Z-2 microcomputer used the Zilog Z80 8-bit microprocessor chip, and a 4 MHZ 250-nanosecond cycle-time board.

This microcomputer’s all-metal, square-boxed chassis (with handy dust case), included 21 printed wiring card slots.

It retailed for $595, and could be ordered as a kit, or fully-assembled.

I uploaded a picture of it from a circa 1977 magazine ad:

A month after the West Coast Computer Faire, in the microcomputer magazine called BYTE, Steve Wozniak, when explaining the design for the Apple II, wrote, “To me, a personal computer should be small, reliable, convenient to use and inexpensive.”

I clearly recall reading BYTE magazines during the late ‘70s; luring me with their stories of how I could build my very own computer, learn the secrets of MS-DOS commands, and be amazed at the high-tech Intel 8080 microprocessor chip, with its clock frequency rate operating at 2 MHZ.

Another vender at the 1977 West Coast Computer Faire was Berkeley, CA based Northstar Computers, who were displaying their floppy-disk, North Star Micro Disk System.

Its operating system used North Star DOS (disk operating system), and their high-level computer programming language called North Star BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code).

Yours truly discovered an original 1977 copy of the 23-page “North Star BASIC Version 6” manual.

If you want to see how BASIC machine line commands were explained in this manual, go to

A company called Heuristics Inc. demonstrated their new product, called SpeechLab.

This peripheral hardware allowed a computer to recognize human speech, and cost under $300.

I found an Aug. 15, 1977 ComputerWorld newspaper article explaining how SpeechLab digitized and removed the data from a “speech wave form” and then applied a pattern-matching technique to recognize the vocal input.

SpeechLab used 64 bytes of storage per spoken word.

The newspaper article is titled, “System Allows S-100 Vocal Input.”

You can see the screen-capture I took of the complete article here:

People from small businesses, curious to learn how a microcomputer and software could help them, also attended the Faire.

They learned about using word processing programs, and how customized software could be written for tracking their companies’ inventory.

The Faire had many individuals stopping in to see how a personal home computer could benefit them in their everyday lives.

A 1977 circulated poster announcing the First West Coast Computer Faire can be seen at