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FROM PLANET EARTH

On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 took flight to the moon. In the days that preceded the launch, the U.S. scrambled to pull together the messages from Earth that would be left behind on the moon. This is the Apollo Goodwill Disc, and it was engineered to last long after the U.S. flag was destroyed.

 

This silicon disc contains etched letters (scanned and reduced 200x) from the leaders of the world’s nations. This is one of the discs produced by Sprague and retained by a Sprague manager; a second resides in the Smithsonian, and a third rests on the Moon's Sea of Tranquility, deposited there by Buzz Aldrin.

 

(Does anyone know if other builds remain intact? A Sprague press release says that of the handful of discs made, one was given to President Nixon and one to President Johnson).

 

It is a tricky subject matter for photography. I wanted to capture the angle-dependendent iridescence of the semiconductor thin films. The overhead light source reflects off the leather seat cushion, revealing the shift from green to purple that occurs at oblique angles.

 

This comes from the early days of the semiconductor industry, when Apollo consumed 50% of global production, and wafers were just 2” wide (the ultimate disc was cropped around the 1.5” metallized ring and placed in a aluminum case).

 

The concept of using lithographic thin films to create a long-term alternative to microfiche was novel at the time, earning Sprague a patent (#3,607,347). I used those techniques to create a multi-colored Devo hat on a chip I designed at HP in 1988.

 

The story of the rushed creation of the disc is fascinating, as are the messages embedded in this interplanetary time capsule.

 

The concept started in June, 1969, and it was a politically charged project, in the midst of the Cold War and the Vietnam War. On June 27, NASA telephoned the state department, and got the unprecedented permission to contact the foreign chiefs of state to deposit a message on the moon. This was 19 days before launch. They were asked to compose and send typed and scribed letters to the U.S. (they came by telegram and mail).

 

But NASA did not know how they would store the messages so that they could last thousands of years in the harsh temperatures, solar radiation, and cosmic rays on the lunar surface. So they approached the supplier of some of the most advanced technology on Apollo – the nascent semiconductor industry.

 

Sprague manufactured 53,000 components on the Apollo 11 spacecraft and many more for the ground support equipment. The engineers chose silicon for the storage medium because of the density of storage and the stability of silicon over temperature in a vacuum.

 

“Crash course is an understatement. We had almost no time to put this together!”

— John Sprague, head of the semiconductor division

 

NASA officials delivered the goodwill letters on the July 4 holiday, and Sprague finished the first printing on July 5 at 3 a.m. Each letter was photographed, and optically reduced to the point where each letter was ¼ the width of a hair. The image was transferred to a glass photomask which was then used to image the silicon, much like the early days of IC manufacturing.

 

“It was a rush to get it done. We slept on lab benches for two days in a row.”

— Ray Carswell, Sprague Engineer

 

However, on July 9, the company was asked to start over and create a new disc with eight additional messages. It was completed and sent to Houston at 3:30 a.m. on July 11, five days before launch.

 

In the comments below are some of the messages that caught my eye, including the Vatican and Estonia (recognized despite their Soviet occupation at the time).

 

The letters were written independently at a historic epoch in exploration abroad and conflict at home. Most of them reference God or peace on Earth.

  

“The Silicon disc represents a historic time when many nations looked beyond their differences to come together to achieve this historic first.”

Charlie Duke, Apollo 16 moonwalker

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Taken on July 5, 2012