How HP’s amazing Atomic Clock was part of the historic moon landings

In a partnership with NASA that started more than 60 years ago, HP technology was a critical element in the Apollo 11 and 12's lunar missions.

By Andrea Bell-Matthews — November 14, 2019

The year was 1969. “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies played on the radio. Nixon was in the White House. And three days of peace, love, and groovy music in upstate New York became the seminal event in the decade’s counterculture movement. But it was putting a man on the moon (twice) that definitively marked the year and captured the world’s attention.

Fifty years ago on November 14, less than four months after the world watched the first man walk on the moon, NASA’s Apollo 12 launched the last lunar mission of that historic year. From the early days of the Space Race, HP technology helped power NASA missions. It began in 1957 with the HP560A digital recorder, which converted counter readings directly to printed and analog form. In the 1960s, after John F. Kennedy implored and inspired his countrymen and fellow Earthlings to lift their eyes to the stars (and beat Soviet Russia to the moon), NASA used HP hot carrier diodes, relatively new metal-semiconductor technology at the time, throughout its operations. When Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission, their communication systems carried these diodes and HP tech along with them. At the time, Al Wilson, quality assurance manager of HP Associates, wrote to his colleagues:  “As you follow the progress of Apollo 11 on its historic flight to the moon, you can be proud that HPA has helped make it possible.”

Courtesy of HP

Hewlett-Packard technicians, Lee Bodily, Ron Hyatt, and Dexter Hartke, time-comparing three Flying Clocks, May 15, 1966.

“The Flying Clock”

It was the HP Cesium Beam Frequency Standard atomic clock that was arguably the company’s most critical contribution to the Apollo missions. The clock synchronized all 18 tracking stations and communications systems in the Apollo network, enabling real-time communication between Houston’s Mission Control and the Apollo spaceships. Created in 1964 by Dr. Leonard Cutler, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard Laboratories and an internationally recognized inventor and scientist, and Alan Bagley, manager of the HP Time-Frequency Division, the “Flying Clock” made its debut during a world-tour of key global standards labs. The tour granted the HP 5060A a first-class airline seat and the galley power supply usually reserved for baby bottle warmers. Its stellar performance during this tour is what solidified its feasibility in the Apollo missions. The next gen HP 5061A clock was designed to maintain accuracy for 3,000 years within only one second of error, a truly remarkable leap ahead for time keeping, and installed just in time for the Apollo 8, which required precise timing to carry out critical navigation and communications.

NASA Archives

Lunar rover on the Moon during the Apollo 12 mission.

During the Apollo 12 launch, both the mission and the clock were tested within seconds of take-off from Cape Kennedy in Florida after the spacecraft was hit by lightning. The strike resulted in launch controllers losing contact on two separate occasions. Luckily, none of the control panel instruments were damaged and the spacecraft hit its specific target, the largest dark spot on the moon known as the Ocean of Storms, on time and intact. Despite its rocky start, Apollo 12 was considered a successful mission as it confirmed that a precision lunar landing with the Apollo system was possible. Additionally, Apollo 12 astronauts, Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr., the mission commander, Richard F. Gordon Jr., the command module pilot, and Alan Bean, the lunar module pilot, collected rock samples and spacecraft components from a previous landing, providing important information about lunar geology and how materials survive in the lunar environment.

Madeleine Cavega secures the HP cesium beam standard atomic clocks before the flight to various countries for synchronizing US time with that of other nations, 1965.

courtesy of HP

Madeleine Cavega secures the HP cesium beam standard atomic clocks before the flight to various countries for synchronizing US time with that of other nations, 1965.

HP’s space connection

As NASA’s space program continued beyond Apollo 12, so too did the use of HP tech. After its introduction in 1974, the HP65, the world’s first fully programmable pocket calculator, became a standard tool for every NASA astronaut crew. Almost 50 years after Apollo 12, on April 2, 2018, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carried cargo to the International Space Station, including two specially-built HP ENVY printers. The crew needed a zero-gravity printer for functional reasons, like printing emergency procedures, trajectories, and return targets in case the network went down, as well as the crew’s personal needs. The printers were sealed and insulated to keep ink microdroplets from contaminating the space station’s environment. Stephen Hunter, manager of ISS Computer Resources at NASA, who oversaw the onboard computer network at the time of launch told Forbes he believed there was another benefit as well. “When the astronauts are 240 nautical miles from home floating in zero gravity,” he said. “The textual touch of paper gives them a connection and sense of home.” 

While most people are familiar with Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong’s iconic statement, “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”; it may be Apollo 12 Commander Charles “Pete” Conrad’s exuberant statement, “Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that's a long one for me,” that best captures the surrealness of that extraordinary year. From walks on the moon to dancing on a dairy farm to an atomic clock on which the accurate measurement of time — and with it the lunar missions —  depended, the 50th anniversary of Apollo 12 is a celebration of more than one amazing ride.