In the half-century since the historic Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969, computer technology has evolved in some pretty giant leaps itself.
So much so, that even simple devices today are more powerful, in terms of raw processing power, than the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) was – a machine that helped us to pull off arguably the greatest and most ambitious scientific feat of modern history.
These kinds of comparisons might seem unflattering to NASA’s proud technological legacy, but they’re not meant to be.
If anything, they serve as a reminder of the incredibly brilliant engineering and mathematics behind the agency’s famous space program in the late 1960s, given the technological limitations of the time.
Even though the AGC was a cutting-edge technological marvel in its day – considered to be years ahead of the field – modern comparisons suggest it would be massively outperformed by even the most elementary computers of the 21st century.
In fact, early home computers like the Apple II caught up to the AGC’s performance in the late 1970s, and since then, modern devices have only continued to become more powerful.
Even simple calculators designed for students, and released over 20 years ago, are said to be over 100 times faster than the AGC – and as for more sophisticated devices, there is basically not even a shadow of competition.
“The iPhone in your pocket has over 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that landed man on the Moon 50 years ago,” computer scientist Graham Kendall from the University of Nottingham explained last year in The Conversation.
Of course, this is not altogether surprising. Today’s smartphone represents five whole decades of incremental technological evolution since the AGC was pioneered. If anything, it would be shocking if the glorious but comparatively primitive machine of yesteryear had not been entirely eclipsed in terms of raw power 50 years later.
That said, it’s still surprising how even the humblest of today’s gadgets – devices we wouldn’t even necessarily recognise as ‘computers’, in any functional sense – are now zooming past the AGC too.
Case in point: none other than USB-C chargers, the simple bricks used to provide power to millions of smartphones, tablets, and notebooks around the world.
China-based Apple developer Forrest Heller made headlines recently with a blog post in which he outlined all the various ways in which one USB-C charger model on the market – the Anker PowerPort Atom PD 2, running on a Cypress CYPD4225 microchip – was vastly superior to the AGC’s performance, in both speed and memory.
Calculators, home computers, and smartphones are one thing, sure. But the fact than even a USB-C wall charger – a dumb appliance, basically – can offer more raw processing power than a vital, history-making computer that landed astronauts on the Moon…?
Well, let’s just say we are amazed. Not that any USB-C charger is necessarily on par with the Anker model, Heller says.
“Many USB chargers have a microcontroller with a CPU,” Heller writes.
“Some are less capable than the Apollo 11 Guidance Computer. Some are more capable than the Apollo 11 Guidance Computer.”
Nonetheless, some commentators insist that all these kinds of comparisons are contrived and off-base, arguing that the focus on purely technical specs – rather than the elegant way in which the AGC was designed to operate in concert with NASA’s other equipment – means the match-offs are a red herring.
“These just-so sayings obscure the real power of the Apollo computer,” journalist Alexis C. Madrigal argued in The Atlantic last year.
“Of course, any contemporary device has vastly more raw computational ability than the early machine, but the Apollo computer was remarkably capable, reliable, and up to the task it was given. You could not actually guide a spaceship to the Moon with a smart doorbell.”
There’s something to be said for that holistic perspective. And for other kinds of practical considerations too.
“The CYPD4225 is definitely not rated for space,” Heller freely admits. “I have no idea if it would work in space.”