18 Sep 2019 Burn Baby Burn!
“Burn baby burn” – This was the name of the program that took us to the moon.
In 1969 NASA and 400,000 Americans that worked on the space program fulfilled President Kennedy’s promise to the nation – of landing men on the Moon and returning them safely back to earth before 1970.
Apollo lunar lander had to fire off it’s rocket engine in a precisely controlled manner while entering the moon’s orbit. Getting this burn right was crucial to the mission – get the angle wrong and either the lunar module would crash into moon’s surface, or would never get captured by moon’s feeble gravity and would drift away into deep space, to be lost forever. Achieving this was extremely challenging with the technology of the 60s, as at the instant of the burn, the lander would be on the far side of the moon and radio blackout would prevent remotely firing the rocket from earth.
It had to be governed by the 3 men on the lunar module. The Lunar module had 36 directional rocket thrusters that would control it’s trajectory, and it was impossible for any human to control them simultaneously to precisely navigate in 3 dimensions, in the vacuum of space. Most importantly, the main rocket engine had to be fired at the exact instant for the precise duration (initiate burn). This main rocket would slow the module down and establish it in the lunar orbit. For the first time, a computer would assist the astronauts, augmenting their capabilities. Needless to mention, the computer program that would control the main engine burn was the most critical component of software. The first software program to ever run on the moon would fire the rocket engine precisely, and the NASA programmer that wrote this piece of critical program aptly named it “burn baby burn”. Burn baby burn was a hit song in the 60s and the programmer chose to name the program after the famous song, which also gave an important meaning to the program sequence.
Often developers affectionately associate this phrase with mission critical software that must execute with no/minimal human intervention.
The software programmer that wrote the critical piece of software, Margaret Hamilton, uploaded the sourcecode to Github recently. Our BigQuery challenge involved looking for the 3 code commits she made, that took humans to the moon and made history.