Little ones do big things

Publish date 29-11-2022

by Valentina Turinetto

A few days ago was the 53rd anniversary of the first moon landing. No round numbers to celebrate in a particular way; perhaps precisely for this reason it was possible to give greater prominence to the memory of characters who may seem "secondary" in the eyes of many. Everyone certainly remembers the names of Armstrong and Aldrin who, with the Apollo 11 mission, set foot on the moon for the first time. Few perhaps remember the names of Michael Collins and Margaret Hamilton.
Collins goes down in history for not having landed on the surface of our satellite: his task, in fact, was to remain in orbit, awaiting the return of the other two astronauts. He was in the Command Module Columbia, over the far side of the Moon, cut off from radio communications with Earth, with the Lunar Module Eagle and its fellow passengers. What will Collins have experienced in particular? From the interviews he has released, his amazement shines through above all: he, perhaps more than others, had in mind that even a small unexpected event could have blocked the mission, derailed the adventure and maybe made him return to Earth alone. Instead… all the pieces ended up fitting together, also thanks to him. He never complained of being a character behind the scenes, aware of having a fundamental role in any case: to recover the two traveling companions and bring them home.

Margaret Hamilton was also decisive: at the head of a team of computer programmers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, she was commissioned with her group to write the flight software for the < i>Apollo 11. We have to force ourselves to think of the technology of over 50 years ago (just think that the two on-board computers had a memory equal to one millionth of that available in a common smartphone) and imagine the flexibility that it had to have the program to deal with unpredictable problems before the launch of the mission. All in all, not an easy task.

Among the innovations included in the design of the program, there was that of being able to interrupt secondary tasks in the event of an emergency and dedicate all the calculation and memory resources to the priority ones. Furthermore, another novelty was to exploit the sound as an alarm indicator: if the program worked correctly it produced a certain sound, otherwise it indicated that there were anomalies. These innovations were essential to avoid a serious danger just before landing: due to a human error, a switch was positioned incorrectly. Thanks to the software designed by the Hamilton group, the problem was immediately recognized and the recovery procedures were activated, which allowed the correct landing and the continuation of the mission.

In great events, as in daily life, it is important to have an overview of the events as a whole in order to recognize the contribution of each one. Little ones can do big things: the value of their work does not change, known or hidden. Remembering is useful for encouraging many other "little ones" to continue to do "their little bit" of good.

Valentina Turinetto
NP August / September 2022

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