PCB technology in space - from Saturn to SpaceX

Published Wednesday 24th April, 2019

In the 50 years that we've been using PCB technology in space projects, we've seen huge advances in the electronics industry - an evolution that's impacted all areas of our lives and allowed the private sector to embrace a new space race. As governments invest less in space, it's been up to several prominent billionaires to pick up the baton – including Elon Musk with SpaceX.

Let's take a look at how we got from Saturn V and the Apollo Program to the very real possibility of space travel for all.

The origins of PCB technology in space

The first high-profile use of PCB technology in space was in Saturn V, who's Apollo Guidance System employed some of the first surface mounted integrated circuits. It's incredible to think that we put men on the moon with onboard computers no more powerful than the first home PCs, like the Apple II and Commodore PET. However, these early successes encouraged PCB designers to be more ambitious during the next phase of space exploration.

The Space Shuttle program

By 1982 space flight had entered a new era, with the introduction of the Space Shuttle Program – made possible thanks to some important advances in circuit board design. The surface mount technology and integrated circuits first seen in Saturn V were now commonplace, along with multi-layered boards and tighter build tolerances because of the introduction of automated manufacturing processes.

These innovations had a huge effect on the success of the mission, from the shuttles themselves to mission control. For example, the IBM AP-101 could compute over 400,000 instructions per second – a quantum leap forward from the Apollo missions – and each shuttle had five of these computers (four primary and one back-up). Updated in 1990 to the IBM AP-101S, with three times the processing power, it says a lot about the quality of these systems that the Shuttle Control System worked flawlessly for all 135 missions.

SpaceX - a new era for space travel

The idea that private enterprises could develop viable space programs was science fiction back in NASA's glory days, but thanks to ambition and intelligent use of resources there's a fascinating new space race happening right now. There are five billionaire-backed projects at various stages of development, but the most advanced is SpaceX...

Formed in 2002 by Elon Musk, the goal of SpaceX is to build genuinely reusable spacecraft that have the capacity to land under their own steam, with the goal being interplanetary travel… and, potentially, Mars colonisation. By keeping as much of the design, production of parts and assembly of their Falcon rockets in-house, SpaceX has managed to keep the costs down to a manageable level – largely thanks to the quality of ‘off the shelf' components and PCB design software available today.

The computing power of contemporary design packages and reliability of modern integrated circuit boards has allowed the SpaceX designers to make incredible advances without breaking the bank. Also, by making the most of the weight and space saving afforded by flexible substrates and multi-layering techniques, the Falcon rockets are leading the way in efficiency.

The future of the human species may well be a challenging one, but with the intelligent use of PCB technology in space travel we might have more options than we think.

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