DSKY Simulation

In Their Own Words: Ramon Alonso on the DSKY

Ramon Alonso with Apollo Guidance Computer in MIT Film
Albert Hopkins
Eldon C. Hall Brochure Photo
Dave Scott in Mission Control During Apollo 11

Ramon Alonso worked in computer science for the Apollo missions at Draper, helping to design and implement the DSKY and core rope memory.

"Humans were talking to computers, just not very well. There were keyboards and I think there were CRTs. Just theoretic stuff, but that was not going to be possible in the environment of the space capsule, things like that.

One day coming to work, it occurred to me that you could do a fairly simple structure. You could say a numerical verb and a numerical noun. A numerical verb is an action, display or fire or align. A numerical noun would be a suitable noun, like time or rocket or platform. I went and talked to both Eldon Hall, but primarily with Albert Hopkins, who was the co-designer. There were other problems with the display. What display had to be. Display and keyboard. DSKY is just a way of shortening display and keyboard.

Part of the reason I thought of it was because my father was a linguist, a philologist, so it came naturally. When I asked him what that was, he said, “a word detective. I study where words came from.” So I had some background in that kind of thing. Besides, English is not my native language. So, having verbs and nouns and that kind of structure was something I had to learn about.

So, when visiting [VIPs] would come and say they object and say, "You can't leave it like that." Well, why not? "It's not serious enough. It's not scientific enough. It's not mathematical enough." So this got to be a game. These guys would come in and we would say what would you like to change it to? "I don't know, but you've got to change it." Remember these letters have to be yay big because they have to be visible through the helmet, and object of the action is way too long for what goes after verb, and, by the way, the buttons have to be yay big because astronauts have these big gloves on there, and the lights on the whatever's display have to be big enough and light enough to see through the helmet that they wore, and it had to not use very much power, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

So, this would go on like that for a while. At the very end, one of the very senior people at the lab came up and we went through this thing, and he made the usual objections. "You can't leave it that way. No, you can't." Why not? "Well, I don't know." Finally, pushed him, why can't you leave it that way? "Because the astronauts wouldn't understand it."

Now the coda to that story is the fact that Dave Scott, one of the astronauts, said, as I recall, "I don't know who thought up that verb and noun, but that was so good because we astronauts could really understand it." And that was terrific. I loved that. That made my day, my decade, and everything else."