Bidding ends Oct. 17 for RR Auction’s Space Exploration sale

Space Exploration sale

Block II prototype Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC), measuring 24 x 12½ x 6½in. Estimate: $300,000-$350,000. RR Auction image

BOSTON – RR Auction will sell the Don Eyles Collection in its Fall Space Exploration sale with online bidding running through Oct. 17.  The fully illustrated catalog can be viewed on LiveAuctioneers.

As a 27-year-old MIT computer expert, Don Eyles had the unequaled distinction of saving the Apollo 14 mission. A quick-thinking mathematical genius, he worked at Draper Labs, the place commissioned by NASA to write the computer code that would take the United States to the moon.

Since graduating Boston University in 1966, Don specialized in writing those invaluable programs for what Apollo 15 Commander Dave Scott later referred to as “the most dangerous part of walking on the moon,” landing the Lunar Module on the surface of the moon.

When the abort switch unexpectedly jammed on Apollo 14, Eyles was tasked with writing a new program on the fly rendering the faulty “abort” request invisible to the computer.

His lightning-fast analytical skills enabled the crew to land as planned, with Eyles completing the task a mere 10 minutes before the lunar module was scheduled to descend. After the Apollo 13 disaster prevented a landing, Eyes was considered a hero for saving the follow-up mission, even gaining celebrity status. Rolling Stone wrote an article about him in March 1971.

Space Exploration sale

Five sections of MIT Charles Stark Draper Laboratory’s ‘R-567 Guidance System Operations Plan for Manned LM Earth Orbital and Lunar Missions Using Program LUMINARY IE,’ bound in separate blue ‘Apollo Guidance, Navigation and Control’ softcover wrappers. Estimate: $2,500-$3,000. RR Auction image

One could even go so far as to say it was because of Eyles that future Apollo missions were kept on track, as two failures back-to-back and an already wary public would have had placed the program’s future in serious question. Eyles saw the monumental Apollo program through from beginning to end —Apollo 5 through Apollo 17— and chronicled his incredible experiences in his book, Sunburst and Luminary: An Apollo Memoir.

Highlights from the collection include; a rare Apollo Guidance Computer prototype — the brain behind the lunar landing. The Apollo Guidance Computer was a technical marvel: in the era of room-size computers, NASA allocated one cubic foot on their spacecraft for the electric brain that would be responsible for guiding humans to the lunar surface and safely returning them home. It was up to the best and brightest at the MIT Instrumentation Lab to make it fit. Rather than using the large vacuum tubes or big transistors typical in computers of the time, MIT engineers pioneered the application of integrated circuits —microchips — to accomplish the same task in a diminutive package. In 1963, the Instrumentation Lab consumed 60 percent of the integrated circuit production in the United States, and by 1964 Fairchild Industries had shipped more than 100,000 ICs for use in the Apollo program.

Space Exploration sale

Apollo 11 rope by Don Eyles, original printout of the assembly listing for AP11ROPE, 1,758 pages, held within a contemporary binder,12¼ x 15¼ x 6in. Estimate: $3,000-$5,000. RR Auction image

The computer hardware was thus a combination of cutting-edge technology and old-school craftsmanship: while these innovative, mass-produced chips made their way into the AGC’s logic modules, the computer’s mission-critical software was stored in handmade “rope memory,” contained inside its fixed memory modules, which could not be erased, altered, or corrupted. This rope memory required absolute precision and was sewn by workers recruited from local textile factories: the copper wire was woven in and around ring-shaped magnetic cores, with each wire threaded through the core representing a binary “1,” and each wire bypassing the core representing a “0.” It took eight weeks for the workers to weave the memory for a single flight computer, at the cost of $15,000 per module.

“It’s an amazing Block II prototype Apollo Guidance Computer,” said Bobby Livingston, executive VP at RR Auction. “A museum-worthy piece deserving of a place in the most distinguished Space collection.”

Space Exploration sale

Book of Mormon carried to the moon on Apollo 16 by Commander John Young and presented to NASA photographer M. Edward Thomas following the mission. Estimate: $150,000-$200,000. RR Auction image.

Known as the “father of inertial navigation,” Doc Draper pioneered the use of gyroscopes and accelerometers to measure a spacecraft’s movement within a stable frame of reference. Derived from the guidance system that Draper had developed for the Polaris missile, the Apollo Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) was able to keep track of the spacecraft’s velocity and position, relaying that information to the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) so that any necessary corrections to the spacecraft’s trajectory could be made. IMUs were installed in both the Apollo Command Module and Lunar Module as important components of the Primary Guidance, Navigation, and Control System (PGNCS). Draper founded the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory in the 1930s. It was renamed for him as the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory in 1970 and became independent of MIT in 1973. (Estimate: $20,000+)

Among additional highlights from the collection are various mission-used manuals along with unique computer program printouts.

The Space & Aviation Auction from RR Auction began Oct. 11 and will conclude Oct. 17.