Retired engineer discovers 55-year-old bug in Lunar Lander computer game code

Enlarge / Illustration of the Apollo lunar lander Eagle over the Moon. (credit: Getty Images)

On Friday, a retired software engineer named Martin C. Martin announced that he recently discovered a bug in the original Lunar Lander computer game’s physics code while tinkering with the software. Created by a 17-year-old high school student named Jim Storer in 1969, this primordial game rendered the action only as text status updates on a teletype, but it set the stage for future versions to come.

The legendary game—which Storer developed on a PDP-8 minicomputer in a programming language called FOCAL just months after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their historic moonwalks—allows players to control a lunar module’s descent onto the Moon’s surface. Players must carefully manage their fuel usage to achieve a gentle landing, making critical decisions every ten seconds to burn the right amount of fuel.

In 2009, just short of the 40th anniversary of the first Moon landing, I set out to find the author of the original Lunar Lander game, which was then primarily known as a graphical game, thanks to the graphical version from 1974 and a 1979 Atari arcade title. When I discovered that Storer created the oldest known version as a teletype game, I interviewed him and wrote up a history of the game. Storer later released the source code to the original game, written in FOCAL, on his website.

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