Kennedy Put a Man on the Moon — and Silicon Valley on the Map

This 20 July 1969 file photo released by NASA shows astronaut Edwin E. 'Buzz' Aldrin, Jr. saluting the US flag on the surface of the Moon during the Apollo 11 lunar mission. The 20th July 1999 marks the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission and man's first walk on the Moon.
National Journal
Laura Ryan
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Laura Ryan
Nov. 22, 2013, 10:28 a.m.

On the an­niversary of his death, Pres­id­ent Kennedy is be­ing widely re­membered for his role in launch­ing the U.S. drive to put a man on the moon. But did you know he helped launch Sil­ic­on Val­ley, too?

The space race played an in­teg­ral part in launch­ing the U.S. mi­cro­chip in­dustry, which gave Cali­for­nia’s Sil­ic­on Val­ley its name.

“Every Amer­ic­an in 1969 was watch­ing those black and white tele­vi­sions “¦ with a sense of pride and awe,” said Leslie Ber­lin, au­thor of The Man Be­hind the Mi­cro­chip, re­fer­ring to the moon land­ing. “Mi­cro­chip en­gin­eers had an­oth­er lay­er of pride know­ing their work had made it all pos­sible.”

To un­der­stand the con­nec­tion re­quires some his­tory. On April 15, 1961, Robert Noyce re­ceived a pat­ent for an in­teg­rated cir­cuit made with sil­ic­on. The mi­cro­chip cost about $120 when it first came to mar­ket.

Ac­cord­ing to T.D. Re­id’s book The Chip, it was as if Noyce had in­ven­ted a sta­tion wag­on that could travel 500 mph but cost $150,000. It was a tech­no­lo­gic­al feat, but few in­dus­tries wanted or needed it. Without a mar­ket to drive down the price, the fu­ture of mi­cro­chips would be stuck in neut­ral.

On May 27, 1961, fate stepped in. In an ad­dress to Con­gress, Kennedy com­mit­ted the na­tion to put­ting a man on the moon, and bring­ing him back to Earth, by the end of the dec­ade. “No single space pro­ject in this peri­od will be more im­press­ive to man­kind, or more im­port­ant for the long-range ex­plor­a­tion of space; and none will be so dif­fi­cult or ex­pens­ive to ac­com­plish,” he said.

At the time of his de­clar­a­tion, the U.S.’s greatest ac­com­plish­ment in space was Alan Shep­ard’s 302-mile sub­or­bit­al flight. The dis­tance of a round-trip jour­ney to the moon would be nearly 488,000 miles, or roughly 1,615 times the dis­tance of Shep­ard’s flight.

The key word in Kennedy’s ad­dress is ex­pens­ive. But no price was too high for Con­gress in the space race with the So­viet Uni­on. The cus­tom­ers des­per­ately needed by Fairchild Semi­con­duct­or, Noyce’s com­pany, had ar­rived. The first con­tract gran­ted after Kennedy’s speech was for mi­cro­chips for NASA’s Apollo guid­ance com­puter.

“The state-of-the-art chips were the sil­ic­on chips, and the reas­on they were so de­sir­able was their dur­ab­il­ity,” Ber­lin said. “They could with­stand ex­tremes of tem­per­at­ure and pres­sure and al­most any kind of stress ima­gin­able; they could get through very re­li­ably.”

In 1964, gov­ern­ment sales were al­most the en­tire mar­ket for mi­cro­chips. As a res­ult, the price of in­teg­rated cir­cuits dropped — from $120 to roughly $25 between 1961 and 1971 — and de­mand soared.

It was dur­ing the end of this peri­od, in 1968, that Noyce left Fairchild to found In­tel with Gor­don Moore, whose fam­ous ob­ser­va­tion that the ca­pa­city of mi­cro­chips doubles ap­prox­im­ately every two years be­came known as Moore’s Law.

In 1969, Kennedy’s vis­ion was real­ized when the first Amer­ic­an landed on the moon. And the elec­tron­ics in­dustry was boom­ing.

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