Cape Cod Writers Center

Hugh Blair-Smith

Author Hugh Blair-Smith.

Hugh Blair-Smith grew up in the cities of the Northeastern Megalopolis that stretches from Washington to Boston, always wanting to become an engineer–which he then understood was about building bridges. Studying electronic engineering and applied physics at Harvard, he learned that computers are much more fun than bridges, and making them do six impossible things before breakfast was even better. As the Space Race began, he joined the engineering staff of MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory, founded by Charles Stark “Doc” Draper to develop self-contained inertial navigation for missiles, aircraft, and spacecraft.
That timing gave him a ground-floor spot with Apollo’s Primary Guidance, Navigation, and Control system, where he became the software specialist on the Apollo Guidance Computer design team, and the computer hardware specialist on the AGC programming team. Halfway through a 22-year career at MIT, he refocused on fault tolerance logic for the Space Shuttle’s onboard computer system. Direct contact with astronauts included Buzz Aldrin (studying rendezvous science at MIT), Dave Scott (among the first to fully embrace the AGC way of flying), and Bob Crippen (a team member on the Shuttle work).
Leaving MIT at the end of 1981, he produced special-purpose software for two startup companies, became a migrant worker (software division), and joined a company founded by an Apollo colleague. One startup (Interactive Images, later Easel Corporation) pioneered touch screens before the world was ready for them. The other (International Treasury Systems) put touch screens to work in foreign-exchange trading rooms of international banks, which had to be ready for that field’s “Big Bang” in the mid-1980s. His final “cubicle farm” (Programart, later bought by Compuware) made a software tool to identify poor performance in mainframe computers caused by inefficient programming.
After retiring to Cape Cod in 2005, he worked a one-year contract with NASA on reliability software for an instrument in the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, thereby placing thousands of his own ones and zeros in orbit around the Moon. The spacecraft in the 2012 photo, taken in a Virginia museum, is the Apollo 12 Command Module, from the mission that scored the
“point-after-touchdown” in the race to the Moon.
Hugh and his wife Vicki, married since 1968, have two grown children, who are successful professionals. There are also two teenaged grandchildren and approximately twenty-five granddogs. When he’s not sailing or preparing a paper to give at the next Digital Avionics Systems Conference, he enjoys teaching boating skills, reading (mostly history and other non-fiction), avoiding watching television, taking medium walks and thinking long thoughts, and puzzling out the meaning in a busy life. He has followed through on a decades-long threat to write a book that will appeal to educated readers who may or may not be scientists.