Whether on mother ship Columbia or the Eagle Moon lander – when the Apollo 11 astronauts could perfectly read the display on the on-board computers and the altitude control data as they landed on the Moon in 1969, they could thank Siemens technology. Special diodes in the instrument panels ensured perfect illumination. A quick scan of the history of space travel shows how much Siemens contributed to many projects, right down to today.
From the Sputnik shock to the Moon landing – Siemens technology goes to the Moon
“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” With these famous words, US astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on the Moon, at precisely 03:56:20 Central European Time on the morning of July 21, 1969 – more than six and a half hours after landing. The sensational event represented not just a turning point in human history, but a milestone in technical progress. And Siemens was there. True, Werner von Siemens had already mused with his brother William about rocket technology back in the mid-1840s. But he would probably never have dared dream that in the 122th year of its existence, the company he founded would contribute to such an epoch-making achievement.
Yet as the 1950s drew to a close, it was the Soviet Union that had gained all the publicity in space travel – and the USA was lagging behind. “Sputnik,” the first satellite to be put in orbit, triggered shock in Washington in 1957, and it was followed by further feats of Soviet space capability, including the first unmanned Moon landing in 1959 and Yuri Gagarin’s first manned space flight in 1961. Dismayed at these successes in the competition between East and West, just a few weeks after Gagarin’s flight US President John F. Kennedy proclaimed that a manned Moon landing would be the achievement with which the United States would outshine the Soviets by the end of the decade. That was the start of the Apollo Program, a massive effort that would consume more than 120 billion US dollars in today’s currency, employ up to 400,000 people, and carry a total of twelve Americans to the Moon by 1972.
Brightly lit – Siemens provides a clear view on board Apollo 11
On July 16, 1969, as Apollo 11 raced across the 384,403 kilometers to the Moon at up to 39,000 kilometers per hour, it had Siemens technology on board. Both the “Columbia” command module and the “Eagle” lunar module had special lighting that kept the displays of the on-board computer bright, and enabled the astronauts to read data easily even in diffuse lighting conditions. The electroluminescent lamps developed by Siemens illuminated displays and instrument panels with magical green light, while consuming almost no electricity. They were extremely reliable and long-lived – factors that mean a lot when you’re hundreds of thousands of kilometers from Earth. The common energy-guzzling incandescent lamps that had been used formerly thus became obsolete.
Developed at the Wernerwerk for medical technology, these special diodes had originally been conceived for entirely different applications. For eight years, Siemens had been researching zinc sulfide phosphors, which make use of the phenomenon of electroluminescence. When you put them into an alternating electric field, they emit light. They were used primarily for the instrument displays on electrical devices for medical applications. But their special characteristics made these phosphors an ideal candidate for greater things: they were also good for space travel, and had already been installed for an unmanned test flight for the Apollo 6 space mission in 1968. And Siemens enjoyed a welcome side effect – once it became known that the phosphors had been used for the Moon landing, demand for the product soared.
If the ‘Man on the Moon’ program hadn’t existed, the drive to make things so small and powerful might never have happened the way it did.Karlheinz Kaske, Siemens-CEO, 1989
In orbit – Siemens does R&D in satellite and rocket technology
When Neil Armstrong jumped from the lunar module ladder onto the Moon’s surface in July 1969, he was watched live on television by more than 500 million people around the world. The signal from the Moon was distributed around the globe on networked satellite radio by way of three receiver stations on Earth. The Moon landing thus became a worldwide media event, and Siemens was involved in that, too.
The company had been deeply involved in satellite communication technology ever since the field originated in the early 1960s, and in the process had drawn on more than a century of experience. After all, Siemens had been a leader in telecommunications since its founding back in 1847. The company had not just supported the basic technology for developing components and special materials for satellite communications, as well as helping build tracking stations, but also worked on developing scientific projects involving satellites. The involvement also included research on rocket propulsion and on power generation during space flight.
Examples of satellite and rocket technology from Siemens
Taking off for new worlds – Siemens on board to explore the solar system
Siemens also put itself at the service of science in developing electrical components for American and European space projects to explore the solar system. A historic achievement arrived on July 14, 1965, when after a 228-day journey the Mariner IV space probe flew past Mars at an altitude of barely 10,000 kilometers, taking the first photos ever – 22 in all – of the Red Planet. Siemens technology again helped ensure that these photos reached Earth a few days later: the probe incorporated a cermet planar triode (the RH 7 C-c), which served as a transmitter tube for not just the photos, but flight and measurement data as well. The component stood out for high efficiency and its ability to withstand thermal shocks and vibrations.
NASA’s Mariner program began as early as 1962, and served to explore the Earth-like planets Mercury, Venus and Mars. By 1973, a total of ten probes had been shot into space. But Siemens also had a role in other technical achievements of space exploration. Early in the 1980s, the Erlangen research laboratory developed specialized planar silicon radiation detectors that began a spectacular voyage in 1986. That April, Halley’s Comet would reach its closest position to the Sun, after an orbit of 76 years. A research probe with these Siemens radiation detectors on board came close to the solar-system vagrant to entice away its secrets.
Looking into infinity - Siemens software helps explore the beginnings of everything
And even today, Siemens technology is helping to explore the white spots of space: The software manufacturer Mentor, which has been part of Siemens since 2016, and Siemens itself have playing a major role with their software solutions in bringing the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, to life. Starting in 2021, this telescope will look much further through the dark matter clouds of the universe beyond the Milky Way; further back in time – to the era of the "first light" and the birth of the very first stars. And it should support the search for life on planets outside our solar system (exoplanets).
The Integrated Science Instrument Module (ISIM) in the telescope contains a complex combination of sensors, cameras, and electronics. Throughout the project – from the simplest special integrated circuit to the overall multiphysical simulation of the four scientific instruments in the ISIM - Mentor software was used extensively to simulate and test the components.
Touchdown on the Red Planet – “Curiosity” lands on Mars
The landings of unmanned spacecraft on Mars are among the most spectacular ventures in space flight. The high point of these missions to date was the landing of the “Curiosity” rover on August 6, 2012, after a voyage that covered 570 million kilometers and took more than eight months. The goal was to broaden our knowledge of the Red Planet, and to prepare for manned missions in the long term. Weighing 900 kilograms and as big as a small car, “Curiosity” was NASA’s largest, most highly developed Mars vehicle to date, and Siemens played a key role in the mission’s success. In developing the rover, NASA engineers applied product life cycle management (PLM), simulation and design software from Siemens. These solutions helped design the vehicle digitally, simulate complex movement procedures, and assemble the construction virtually before ever building a prototype. It was a resounding success. The mission’s most delicate phase alone – the Mars landing – was simulated some 8,000 times in advance, and its procedures were optimized fully enough that it ultimately succeeded.
Siemens’ involvement in space flight today is largely focused on software solutions. Today’s modern space flight technology – whether satellites, probes, equipment for space telescopes, or space vehicles of all kinds – would be unthinkable without digital solutions available today like “Digital Industries Software” from Siemens, as used in the "Curiosity" project or currently in the James Webb Space Telescope. Siemens enjoys success working with numerous partners around the world. They include NASA, which continues to rely on Siemens software for its Mars projects. It is still not clear whether the 2030s will in fact see a manned mission to Mars. But one thing is sure: Siemens will be here to make an important contribution to achieving this goal at some point.
Dr. Ewald Blocher