Your Phone Charger Is Probably Smarter Than the Apollo Guidance Computer


Reaching the moon more than 50 years ago took all the technological might the US could muster. The communication and navigation systems aboard the Apollo 11 capsule were cutting edge for the time, but today even the simplest devices are more powerful. Apple developer Forrest Heller has posted an analysis of several USB Type-C chargers, demonstrating they all have more processing power than the Apollo 11 guidance computer

In the late 1960s, even simple computers filled entire rooms. That, of course, would not do on a mission to the moon and back. However, the calculations necessary for the mission were too complex for the astronauts to do by hand. NASA and Raytheon collaborated to build the Apollo Guidance Computer, which was one of the first computers to use integrated circuits. The result was a device just a few feet tall that could mount inside the Apollo Command Module control panel. 

The Apollo 11 computer had a whopping 1.024MHz clock speed, allowing it to perform about 40,000 arithmetic functions per second. That’s all it took to fly to the moon and back. Today, we use much more powerful processors in everything — even in the charging block for your phone. Heller looked at three different USB-C wall adapters: the Google 18W Pixel charger, Huawei’s 40W SuperCharge plug, and the Anker PowerPort Atom PD 2. He found all three were considerably more powerful than the computer that got us to the moon. 

The Apollo Guidance Computer and keypad.

The current USB Power Delivery (USB-PD) standard is a huge leap over older charging methods. Today’s devices can accept as much as 100W of power over USB-PD, but devices need to negotiate the correct charging rate. That’s why adapters like the ones Heller tested need integrated microcontrollers — they’re essentially tiny computers. 

The Google charger is only intended for phones that charge at a few speeds, so it has the most modest hardware. Its Weltrend WT6630P controller maxes out at 10MHz, which is still almost 10 times faster than the Apollo computer. Huawei’s SuperCharge adapter is twice as fast with its Richtek RT7205 chip at 22.7MHz. Finally, the Anker PowerPort has a Cypress CYPD4225 MCU with an ARM Cortex M0 CPU clocked at 48MHz. That’s almost 47 times faster than the Apollo Guidance Computer. 

Even today, computers designed for space missions are much less powerful than their terrestrial counterparts. The designers have to ensure these systems are hardened against radiation and vibration that could destroy a “regular” computer. There’s also the problem of powering the computer. It’s better to take a computer that does just what you need instead of wasting power on something faster. Still, it’s wild to think about your phone charger besting the Apollo computer in raw speed.

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