To the Moon and Beyond: MITRE and the Apollo Program

NASA control room

Starting in 1966, NASA worked with MITRE to assess the design and operation of the Apollo Mission Control Center in Houston (now the Johnson Space Flight Center). Source: NASA Archives.

McLean, Va., and Bedford, Mass., June 5, 2019—Fifty years ago, Neil Armstrong made history when he declared the lunar landing a "giant leap for mankind." But before he could speak those words from hundreds of thousands of miles away, MITRE engineers in Houston provided objective insight into the design of key parts of NASA's Apollo control systems.

Leveraging its work on command, control, and communications systems with the Department of Defense, and responding to a direct NASA request for help in 1966, MITRE began to apply this expertise to the Mission Control Center in Houston. NASA also asked MITRE to forecast future information processing needs for the post-Apollo space station program.

NASA implemented several MITRE recommendations, including a control system design for research modules to be deployed on the moon during lunar landings, measurement and analysis of display and control system performance, and a feasibility analysis of network data compaction. NASA also adopted MITRE's design for a command and control simulator.

"MITRE's work for the Air Force in radar systems, short-range and long-haul communications, and the Manned Orbital Laboratory were the independent, objective systems engineering needed by NASA to facilitate earth-to-space communications necessary for the lunar landing," said Jay Schnitzer, MD, MITRE’s chief technology officer.

MITRE's work protecting space has continued long after the Apollo program concluded. From securing critical technology like GPS receivers to improving U.S. airspace operations, MITRE is solving problems to make commercial space safer.

MITRE Goes to Houston

In 1966, MITRE began evaluating NASA's systems, beginning with the Mission Control Center in Houston.

Briefing diagram

A diagram from a 1970 MITRE briefing titled "Some possible Ways to Assign Frequency to Satisfy Lunar Exploration Program (LEP) Communication Requirements." Source: MITRE Archives. (Click image to enlarge)

"The first job we were given was to review the system design and capabilities of what people know as the Mission Control Center," said John Quilty, one of the first eight MITRE engineers in the Houston office, and who went on to become Senior Vice President and General Manager of MITRE's Washington Center for Command, Control, and Communications, the precursor to the company's National Security Engineering Center. "We were analyzing what kind of processing loads would be on the computers and if the computers would be adequate."

MITRE employees also evaluated the requirements for a NASA-run simulator, which allowed Mission Control staff to train for unexpected scenarios without a rocket in the sky.

Quilty said the work for NASA in the late-1960s still stands out from his 40-plus year MITRE career.

"It was an amazing time, and it was great to be a participant," he said. "We felt honored to be involved."

MITRE's Houston office eventually grew from seven technical staff in 1966 to 28 in 1970, becoming MITRE's Space Mission Control Systems department along the way.

Beyond Apollo

MITRE was soon tasked with assessing whether NASA's existing control center would be able to service the space program's future aspirations. In 1967, NASA contracted with MITRE to design a new Mission Control Center for post-Apollo spaceflight, according to a 1967 memo from then-MITRE president John McLucas.

A diagram of voice systems equipment

A diagram of voice systems equipment at NASA’s Mission Control Center in Houston contained in a 1968 MITRE working paper. Source: MITRE Archives.www.mitre.org/aviation (Click image to enlarge)

"The new challenges that the center must face include the simultaneous control of several long-duration lunar or earth-orbital missions," McLucas wrote in a memo to employees advertising the job opportunities. "Our responsibility requires system engineers with experience in communications, display, computer hardware and computer software applications in control system design."

MITRE work projected the technical requirements for advanced missions, emphasizing communications and information processing support for experiments aboard a projected space station and lunar base. Though NASA's initial vision for the future of the space station program did not come to fruition as expected, MITRE’s technical work focused on improving control systems on rockets and shuttles, as well as the planned lunar base and space station.

"To date [1970], spaceflight has been aimed at teaching man how to exist, work and maneuver in space; at gaining experience and confidence in space vehicle operation; and at flight-testing and improving the equipment. But as more experience is gained, we expect to move out of this stage," said Robert Grandy, who was the department head of MITRE's Space Mission Control Systems Department, in a 1970 article in MITRE Matrix, an internal magazine. 

By the time Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in 1969, most MITRE work in Houston was done with an eye toward the future. But the occasion was still cause for celebration.

"I was at a friend's house with my kids, watching them land," said David Buckley, who was one of the first MITRE employees in Houston. "I said, gee, I helped with a little bit of that."

Quilty said he still remembers watching the landing in his Houston home.

"We took great satisfaction for being involved in that," he said. "It was a true privilege and opportunity to be involved in that endeavor."

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