When you say “you have a NASA PC” do you know what it really means?

PC NASA Cover

One of the most colloquial phrases to talk about an exaggerated power computer is to use the concept NASA PC. It is an expression that has been used for years and not only in the case that we are discussing, but to talk about programs that require a lot of hardware. But where does this expression come from? Is it true or is it a simple exaggeration of the vulgar? We tell you about it.

In modern terms, what we might consider NASA’s first PC was the Apollo lo Guidance Computer, a fundamental piece for the arrival of man on the moon. It was a simple computer that made it to the moon landing with a less powerful processor than early home computers and only 4KB of RAM. However, NASA’s computer concept is due to the huge mainframes or data servers that they supposedly use in their facilities. Now, does the legendary NASA supercomputer exist?

What do we understand as NASA PC?

Today, this concept refers to a very powerful computer, so much so that it is above what ordinary people have at home and whose power allows them to do things that in theory would be impossible to do with a simple computer like the one that we have at home In other words, what we commonly call, a computer cucumber.

However, it is a more outdated concept than anything, but it has its historical origin in the special race. The reality is that many things that we use today on a daily basis with our computers originated from the powerful computers of the US space agency.

The special race and the advancement of computing

Today, any small company that has an engineering load usually uses high-performance systems, usually servers or advanced workstations, which allow them to do their work collaboratively. These computer systems require much more power than a conventional PC and that is why the research and development center has one of these as the main computer system. It is found in the private sector, at the military, public level or a combination of all of them.

However, to solve concrete problems, concrete solutions are necessary. And oddly enough, the research and development of the different special agencies has not only advanced different industries, but has also served as motivation for ever more efficient and fast architectures. Let’s not forget that it is necessary to look for new problems to solve in order to motivate technological progress.

Thus, the concept of NASA PC comes from the fact that, in its different challenges, said special agency had to develop new technology to solve them. Think of it, like what happens in Formula 1, where many of the competition technologies end up being applied to commercial cars to a greater or lesser extent.

The CRAY, NASA’s first PC

Though The NASA PC concept we owe mainly to CRAY and especially the second version of it that came out in the mid 80’s. The concept behind this supercomputer is what we know today as SIMD or vector processing. This consists of having the ability to carry out the same instruction with several different operands at the same time and in parallel. Said functionality was adapted to PCs in the mid-90s, which is when the multimedia concept appeared.

Traditionally, it is the way in which the graphics processors or GPUs found in graphics cards work. Since then, CRAY-style systems and the like, designed to execute multiple instructions in parallel at high speed, have been replaced by the use of graphics cards to perform such calculations. In other words, they make use of the same technology that you use in your gaming PC. That is to say, the NASA PC has not been an alien or off-world technology for a long time. As some conspiracy theorists with silver paper caps believe.

Home-Supercomputers-Cray-2

We owe you the current graphics card market

If we look at the history of today’s graphics cards we will see that they are a continuous evolution of the 3D cards of the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Most of them created by former employees of companies like Silicon Graphics and other companies. Which is popular knowledge, however, no one knows that the first workstations with the ability to generate 3D graphics in real time we owe it to NASA being the main client of SGI in the 80s, 90s and 2000s and not only on workstations, but also servers and supercomputers.

In other words, because in the 80s the American space agency needed to carry out 3D simulations for its astrophysics work and in a more efficient way than the traditional CAD/CAM programs of the time, this caused the need for a new type of hardware, whose evolved technology is what we use to play our favorite games in 3D.

NASA PC Build

Other technologies that were originally created for NASA

  • They were the first to implement a TCP/IP network to communicate their different computers.
  • In order to be able to communicate directly between the different bases, they deployed the first WAN or high-reach network so that remote workers could connect.
  • The first distributed computing system, where each worker could take a share of the power of supercomputers to speed up their work, was first implemented at NASA.