Unlike Apollo, SpaceX's Moon Trip Won't Have "LOL" Technology

Technology has come a long way in 45 years.


SpaceX will send two private citizens on a moon-orbiting trip in 2018, the first such trip since the Apollo 17 astronauts orbited the moon 75 times 45 years ago.

The two astronauts inside the Dragon 2 capsule will have far more advanced technology at their disposal, though. For example, there won’t be any “LOL” technology involved.

The Apollo capsules “actually had a wire-core memory which was woven together by LOL technology, which stands for ‘little old ladies,’” NASA’s chief historian, Bill Barry, tells Inverse. These “little old ladies” were women who worked at textile mills near MIT hired to weave together wires for the Apollo capsule’s computers.”

While the Apollo technology was cutting-edge then, much of it has been upgraded, right down the sports car-inspired bucket seats SpaceX installed in the Dragon 2 capsule. The last time humans visited the moon was the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972, wherein astronauts entered lunar orbit and two of three crew members landed while one remained in orbit.

We’ve come a long way since the days of LOL technology. Here are some major changes from the Apollo missions that we will see in the Dragon 2 capsule.

This diagram from March 13, 1968 in the Apollo Training Manual shows the interior of the Command Module.



The Apollo astronauts used the Apollo Guidance Computer used the wire core memory, or core rope memory, made of wires woven together through magnetic cores — those “little old ladies.” There weren’t silicon microchips then. What’s more, if you were an astronaut, you’d better know how to code.

“Back in those days, there was so little memory built into the Apollo Guidance Computer, so astronauts reprogrammed the computer all the time because it didn’t have enough memory,” Barry says. “If you looked at the Apollo transcripts, a lot of what they talked about was putting new programs and deleting old ones.”

This diagram from October 15, 1969 in the Apollo Operations Handbook Block II Spacecraft shows the Command Module main control panel.


Core rope memory was read-only. Nowadays, computer memory is stored on chips, and the memory is going to be a lot stronger. The Dragon 2’s displays will provide real-time information like the position in space, possible destinations, and the environment on board.

The spacecraft itself will be fully autonomous, and on-board astronauts and SpaceX mission control will monitor and control it. The two private citizens, who put down a “significant deposit” for the trip, will only need to worry about their training and health and fitness tests.

The Dragon 2 will be autonomous and show its passengers information in real time on its display panels.


Heat Shield

Back in the days of Apollo, NASA originally planned to develop a thermal protection system for Apollo that used a ceramic heat shield. However, they had to scrap the plan because at the time, the technology was hard to create. Instead, the Command Module used an ablative heat shield composed of AVCOAT.

During reentry, the heat outside the spacecraft burns and melts away the AVCOAT. The AVCOAT protects the capsule by absorbing and carrying away the heat.

“If you look at [the Apollo] heat shields, they all look the same,” Barry says. “They’re charred-looking. It almost looks like cork in a way.”

The Dragon 2 will use a PICA-X heat shield, which can protect the spacecraft from temperatures over 3,000 degrees. PICA-X is a SpaceX variant of NASA’s Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA) heat shield.

Unlike the Apollo heat shields, the 3.6-meter PICA-X shield can be reused hundreds of times for reentering Earth’s orbit with only minor degradation. It can withstand the high temperatures of reentry to the moon and even Mars’s atmosphere.

The PICA-X heat shield will protect the Dragon 2 from extremely high temperatures as it reenters Earth's orbit.


Heat Management

Speaking of heat, the Command Module was a lot hotter, thanks to the large, bulky computers. The capsule would have to get rid of its heat.

“Back in those days, big computers and equipment generated a lot of heat, so they had to get heat out of the capsule,” Barry says. “It was radiated out into space.”

On the Dragon 2 capsule, this should be less of a problem, since computers are smaller, more efficient, and generate less heat. It has an Environmental Control and Life Support System where the people on board can set the spacecraft’s inside temperature between 65 and 80 degrees.


Normally when we think of navigating, we think of the GPS, which did not exist in the 1960s, but to navigate, the Command Module used an inertial navigation system, which uses gyroscopic platforms that stayed in the same place to navigate the spacecraft.

This diagram from March 13, 1968 in the Apollo Training Manual shows the Guidance navigation and control systems.


In addition, the Apollo Guidance Computer had a sextant built in, which measures the angle in relation to the stars. Finally, NASA scientists from Earth could triangulate where the Apollo astronauts were based on radio communication.

“It was sort of like GPS in a way, and they were tracking the spacecraft that way,” Barry says.

The Dragon used the Dragon Guidance, Navigation, and Control Bay, a sealed equipment bay on the forward side of the Dragon. This includes optical sensors, laser-based range sensors, and inertial sensors. The Dragon 2 will likely use a similar system.

Strap in.


Human Waste Management

Taking care of a business can be a hassle on spaceships. On the Command Module, astronauts had to urinate into a hose with a condom-like fitting that led to a vent, which would dump the urine overboard. As for solid waste, that had to be stored and brought back to Earth, since there wasn’t a good way to get rid of it.

Right now, the International Space Station has space toilets, where human waste gets flushed using air flow. Full containers of waste get transferred to the Progress spacecraft for disposal.

It’s unclear how Dragon 2 will deal with human waste, although NASA scientists have been working on more efficient ways to recycle urine.

“Getting rid of waste will still probably be a problem,” Barry says. “Recycling it will be easier to deal with, but it won’t be easy to throw away waste, and you’re stuck with stuff inside the cabin.”

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