At Cogo Labs, part of our commitment to excellence is providing development opportunities for our team — two of the three objectives in our vision statement focus on providing resources for our talent. In keeping with this mission, we bring visionaries, thought leaders, and inspiring people of all kinds through to speak. This past week we heard from Don Eyles, a programmer on the Apollo Missions, and Phillip Clay, former Chancellor of MIT and a leader in education and entrepreneurship development in Africa.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing; July 16th launch, July 20th landing, and July 24th splashdown on Earth. In commemoration of this historic event, we at Cogo Labs were honored to hear from Don Eyles who was one of the twenty computer coders working on the landing guidance programs for Apollo missions 5-17.
When he was just 26 years old – the same age as many of our own engineers; our average is 27 – Don worked under the famous Charles Stark “Doc” Draper at Draper Lab in Cambridge, designing systems to control the Lunar Excursion Module as it made its 49,000-foot descent to the lunar surface. As it happens, Draper Lab’s Kendall Square location is about 500 feet from Cogo!
Addressing the whole Cogo Labs team, Don told the story of how the famous Apollo 11 landing was actually a very near thing: a series of computer overload errors and program alarms during Apollo 11’s descent nearly aborted the famous Moon mission. The landing program returning errors was his area of expertise, and while Houston ultimately made the call to proceed with the landing anyway, it was nerve-wracking for Don to follow from Cambridge.
Apollo 14 had a close call as well: the “Abort” switch was stuck in active mode, and Don and the Draper Labs team had to rewrite the control program mid-flight and phone the results over to Houston to bypass the switch and prevent an unintended mission abort. They finished with ten minutes to spare.
Cogo Labs is a company of coders so debugging code in a time crunch is a relatable situation for many of us – but Don did it with punch cards on computers with no monitor! It was fascinating to get technical on such an important piece of computing history and speak coder-to-coder with the man who did the programming.
We also heard from Phillip Clay who was the highest-ranking African-American official in MIT’s 150-year history in his ten years as Chancellor of MIT. During his tenure, he oversaw undergrad and graduate education and student life initiatives. He is also a member of the boards of the Kresge Foundation and the Mastercard Foundation and is heavily involved in initiatives that have invested over one billion dollars in economic and educational development projects in Africa.
Phil also took the opportunity to commemorate the anniversary of the Moon landing, commenting that “when you work on a hard problem, you have the opportunity to mobilize what is best in the population and the resources that are available to do great things.” A North Carolina native, he spoke about his experience observing the buildup and technological development of the Research Triangle — and after visiting our Kendall Square location remarked that that torch today is being borne by places like Cambridge; “…you have inherited a platform that makes it possible for you to do the things that are going to be transformative in the future — you have a great opportunity.”
“You have the same kind of powerful technologies available to you, the same powerful colleagues... my question to you is how do you use that opportunity?” - Phillip Clay
“What I gathered,” commenting on his time visiting our space, “was a seriousness and a focus, and that combination…will make a big difference.” Emphasis on learning and development is a virtue here and we are excited that Phil has offered his time to help Cogo Labs. We look forward to working with him on many fronts as we strive to be the absolute best place for entrepreneurs to develop their talents and expand their thinking!
To learn more about Don Eyles' impressive career, you can read the Wall Street Journal’s profile on his work "Apollo 11 Had a Hidden Hero: Software" and more about the computer systems behind the missions in Wired Magazine’s "Apollo 11: Mission Out of Control".