Business & Tech

Draper dusts off treasures of the Apollo era

A model of the moon hovers over an exhibit on the Apollo 11 mission at Draper Laboratory in Cambridge.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
A model of the moon hovers over an exhibit on the Apollo 11 mission at Draper Laboratory in Cambridge.

At Draper in Cambridge, they’re usually looking toward the future. This week, the famed lab has understandably been focused on the past.

In the 1960s, engineers at Draper — then known as the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory — designed the guidance and navigation systems for Apollo 11. To mark the 50th anniversary of that first moon landing, and Draper’s crucial role in it, the company has turned its lobby into a museum. An exhibit celebrating the engineers behind the Apollo 11 mission features an impressive number of space-race artifacts. Until recently, however, some of these pieces of history were being treated as junk.

CAMBRIDGE, MA - 7/12/2019:A space suit.... Apollo 11 exhibit in the lobby of Draper Labs in Cambridge. Draper, in an ealrier incarnation, played a major role in the moon shot. (David L Ryan/Globe Staff ) SECTION: BUSINESS TOPIC
David L Ryan/Globe Staff
A space suit at the Apollo 11 exhibit in the lobby of Draper Labs.

“When I got here about five years ago, people were showing me around various labs,” said Kaigham (Ken) J. Gabriel, Draper’s CEO. “And out of the corner of my eye, I see the Apollo guidance computer, and it’s in a corner. There’s all sorts of boxes around or some junk piled up on top of it.”

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So Gabriel spearheaded an initiative to collect and catalogue the space artifacts that played a key part in getting the Apollo astronauts safely on and off the moon. The result of that effort, Hack the Moon Live, will be on display in the lobby of Draper’s headquarters until October, and it’s open to the public.

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Positioned along the exhibit’s nostalgic 1960s-style wooden paneling are genuine examples of astral Americana. They include a space sextant for celestial navigation, a boxy guidance computer that astronauts trained on, a model of a theoretical Mars probe envisioned during the first years of space exploration, and core memory ropes — an early form of computer programming made by physically threading wires through magnetic cores to represent the ones and zeroes of binary code.

CAMBRIDGE, MA - 7/12/2019: Apollo 11 exhibit in the lobby of Draper Labs in Cambridge. Draper, in an ealrier incarnation, played a major role in the moon shot. (David L Ryan/Globe Staff ) SECTION: BUSINESS TOPIC
David L Ryan/Globe Staff
Apollo 11 exhibit in the lobby of Draper Labs.

In a glass case near the entrance there’s a pale-blue NASA jacket worn by the lab’s founder and namesake, Charles “Doc” Draper. A massive seven-meter model of the moon hanging over the lobby will be illuminated on Saturday, at the exact moment Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface a half century ago.

The centerpiece of Hack the Moon Live is a simulator that replicates the last 100 seconds of the lunar lander’s descent, when the astronauts had to physically pilot the craft. Beyond recreating the vessel’s bright-white interior and sea of displays and switches, the simulator resurrects the actual programs Draper built for the mission.

“The software that’s running in the background, that’s the actual Apollo guidance algorithm,” said Kevin Duda, a Draper space systems engineer who helped design the simulator. “And it’s the actual Apollo control algorithms.”

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The machine allows would-be pilots to pitch the entire device back and forth as they lower the craft toward a lunar surface that was recreated using photos taken during the mission. Small waves of CGI-generated dust ripple outward from the craft as it reaches the ground, and the entire simulator shakes upon touchdown. It’s an engaging experience that Duda hopes will prove alluring to the next generation of engineers.

CAMBRIDGE, MA - 7/12/2019: Mock up of lunar landing vehicle interior. Apollo 11 exhibit in the lobby of Draper Labs in Cambridge. Draper, in an ealrier incarnation, played a major role in the moon shot. (David L Ryan/Globe Staff ) SECTION: BUSINESS TOPIC
David L Ryan/Globe Staff
A mock up of the lunar landing vehicle’s interior.

“A student just coming out of the MIT aero department with a PhD is equally qualified to work in this industry, or go work at Wall Street,” Duda said. “How do we get them to come this way and make impacts in the space community?”

Gabriel believes that by spotlighting the Draper engineers, nicknamed “Apollonauts,” and showcasing the obstacles they had to overcome, a new generation might be inspired to reach beyond reasonable expectations. Amazingly, a few of those legendary Apollonauts still work at Draper.

“It’s important for people to understand that the people who did all of this weren’t some superhuman alien race of beings who created these things,” Gabriel said. “They were 20-somethings, 30-somethings. . . . They took the capabilities and tools at hand and just got on with that.”

CAMBRIDGE, MA - 7/12/2019: Control panel in a mock up of lunar landing craft. Apollo 11 exhibit in the lobby of Draper Labs in Cambridge. Draper, in an ealrier incarnation, played a major role in the moon shot. (David L Ryan/Globe Staff ) SECTION: BUSINESS TOPIC
David L Ryan/Globe Staff
A control panel inside the mock up of a lunar landing craft.

@MaxJungreis