We’ve all had jobs that asked a lot of us. Sometimes the work that needs to get done requires more hours than it seems like any sane person would give, leaving you and your coworkers with no choice but to find ways to make another few hours bearable, another long night survivable, and another humorless situation just a bit funnier. Many of us who have served can recall long, sleepless nights that forced us to find humor in serious, or even life-threatening, situations—and thanks to the recent release of Apollo 11’s source code, we now know that the men and women at NASA are no exception.
Apollo 11 was an audacious enterprise. We humans chose to go to the moon “not because it’s easy, but because it is hard,” and that objective left many programmers typing away into the night, anxiously creating software that could guide a metal box farther away from the surface of the Earth than men had ever dared venture, land safely on a rock circling our planet at 2,288 miles per hour, then take off again and bring those men back safely to Earth using computers substantially less powerful than the smartphone you have in your pocket.
I’d imagine those programmers worked some late nights, and just like each of us when we find ourselves working late, they tried to find humor in their work. Unlike many of us, however, they chose to actually code some of that humor into the final product, leaving jokes and pop culture references littered throughout the very coding that guided Apollo’s rockets.
The Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) on board the command module and lunar lander used in Apollo 11 was so advanced at the time that the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory had to develop a new kind of software to support it. Scanned images of the code written have been available to the public for years, but in 2003, an unnamed but devoted person chose to transcribe the images of the coding into searchable text. Then, in July of this year, a former NASA intern named Chris Garry uploaded the transcribed coding onto GitHub, where other programming aficionados began excitedly analyzing the historic lines of code that got Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon. What they found was quite surprising.
Sprinkled throughout the hundreds of pages of command code were comments and labels left by the programmers. Many of these would have been invisible to the astronauts en route, though some likely reached them via the onboard displays. In reality, these bits of creative coding were left entirely for the entertainment of the programmers. Now, almost 50 years later, we get to see that NASA’s star programmers weren’t all that much different from a group of lance corporals in the smoke pit behind your shop.
For instance, the executable file to begin the ignition sequence that launched Apollo is dubbed in the coding “BURN_BABY_BURN,” and commands pertaining to extending one of the lander’s antennas suggest that the astronaut “PLEASE CRANK THE SILLY THING AROUND,” then ask if it was working before suggesting that the astronaut also “SEE IF HE’S LYING” before heading “OFF TO THE SEE THE WIZARD.” This line of commands was a part of the process that actually put the lunar lander on the surface of the Moon.
That landing sequence? In the code it was referred to as “FLAGORGY.”
While some consider this revelation an embarrassment to the incredible American space program that landed these men on the moon, it seems bigger than that in the objective scope of history. Just as it is important for us to recognize that our founding fathers were fallible human beings and that legendary heroes like the recently departed John Glenn were capable of making mistakes, these bits of history remind us that the incredible accomplishments of our past weren’t the works of perfect beings—they were accomplished through the tireless effort and dedication of men and women just like each of us, fart jokes and all.
These “TRASHY LITTLE SUBROUTINES” (as they were actually titled in the code) that guided Apollo 11 into the history books were only possible because people that were no better or worse than you and I devoted hours, days, weeks, and months to perfecting them. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, heroes all, couldn’t have accomplished their mission without the help of thousands of people. Their mission was a triumph for all of mankind, not just for the United States, but none of it would have been possible without a group of programmers that coded a quotation from William Shakespeare into the flight controls, only to get the citation (they chose to include) wrong.
Let’s all just be glad they were better at coding than they were at English literature.
Images courtesy of NASA