From the Moon to Mars: Two Tech Breakthroughs That Made it Possible

From the Moon to Mars: Two Tech Breakthroughs That Made it Possible

On May 25, 1961, in front of a joint session of Congress, President John F. Kennedy stated clearly what still stands among the most daring objectives in American history:


I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space.


This week, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of that achievement—embodied by Neil Armstrong stepping onto the lunar surface at 10:56 p.m. EDT on July 20, 1969—Siemens recollects with great pride the technical role the company played in the success of Apollo 11.


Amazingly, Werner von Siemens had mused with his brother William about rocket technology back in the mid-1840s. But he could not have ever dreamed that in its 122nd year of existence, the company he founded would contribute to an epoch-making achievement in space.


A little magic light: Illuminating the trip to the moon


Both the Apollo 11 Columbia command module and the Eagle lunar module were outfitted with electroluminescent lamps that kept the on-board computer displays bright, enabling the astronauts—Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins—to read data easily even in diffuse lighting conditions. Powered by special diodes, the lamps illuminated displays and instrument panels with a magical green light while consuming almost no electricity. They were extremely reliable and long-lived, essential factors for space travel.

Years earlier, Siemens researchers had come up with these diodes in for an entirely different purpose. Through extensive experimentation with zinc-sulfide phosphors, the researchers had found out that when placed in an alternating electric field, the phosphors emitted light, or “electroluminescence.” That made these diodes highly useful for the instrument displays of electric medical devices.

By 1968, these devices found a new purpose as they were installed in an unmanned test flight for the Apollo 6 mission.


Flight recordings of Armstrong and Aldrin landing the Eagle on the lunar surface, with Aldrin calling out navigational readings as Armstrong piloted the craft, make clear how utterly crucial easy-to-see instrumentation displays were for Apollo 11. Put simply, the data had to be illuminated perfectly.


These tiny diodes were a first step in the creation of better and better displays on spacecraft, and the success of Apollo 11 was the beginning of giant leaps in hi-tech. As Karlheinz Kaske, Siemens CEO in 1989, said, “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.”

Simulating the spectacular: An unmanned landing on Mars


As NASA’s missions evolved through the late 20th century, Siemens’ technology also evolved. By 2012, Siemens was involved in one of the most spectacular ventures in space flight: the landing of an unmanned craft on the surface of Mars. And this time, instead of illumination being key, simulation was the essential capability.


Early in the mission of the Opportunity rover on Mars, beginning in 2004, NASA contacted Siemens for help creating a new rover called Curiosity. NASA envisioned Curiosity being five times heavier than Opportunity and equipped with state-of-the-art sensors and cameras. In other words, this would be a weighty machine that needed to land very softly after entering Mars’ atmosphere, which is 100 times thinner than Earth’s, at more than 13,000 miles per hour. How could Curiosity’s descent slow down to just 2 miles per hour, the necessary speed for a safe landing?


Tests with prototypes were simply not possible. The costs were too high, and the atmosphere of Mars can’t be replicated on Earth. That meant that Curiosity had to be designed in a virtual world.


NASA engineers applied product life cycle management (PLM), simulation and design software from Siemens. PLM enabled the digital design and virtual construction of Curiosity, and the simulation of complex movement procedures, before the physical creation of a prototype. The mission’s most delicate phase, the Mars landing, was simulated some 8,000 times in advance, and its procedures were optimized fully enough that the real landing went exactly to plan.


The landing of Curiosity, on August 6, 2012, came after an eight-month voyage of 570 million kilometers. In operation since that day seven years ago, Curiosity has collected huge quantities of data—and has served as a performance model for the Mars 2020 rover mission.


The continual trend in technology to push vehicle design and performance has brought us to where we are today. Siemens’ involvement in space flight now is largely focused on software solutions. Today’s modern space-flight technology—for satellites, probes, equipment for space telescopes, or space vehicles of all kinds—would be unthinkable without the digital solutions available today, such as the Siemens software used to advance the Curiosity project or develop the James Webb Space Telescope.



This has tremendous importance for how we see ourselves at Siemens today: as a company deploying technology that allows innovators—people who are pushing the boundaries of science and technology—to expand what is humanly possible. And as we bring together the worlds of hardware and software, our knowledge is growing deeper every day.

The giant leap continues.


Published: July 18, 2019