An Emulator For OBP, The Spaceflight Computer From The 1960s

[David Given] frequently dives into retrocomputing, and we don’t just mean he refurbishes old computers. We mean things like creating a simulator and assembler for the OBP spaceflight computer, which was used in the OAO-3 Copernicus space telescope, pictured above. Far from being a niche and forgotten piece of technology, the On-Board Processor (OBP) was used in several spacecraft and succeeded by the Advanced On-board Processor (AOP), which in turn led to the NASA Standard Spaceflight Computer (NSSC-1), used in the Hubble Space Telescope. The OBP was also created entirely from NOR gates, which is pretty neat.

One thing [David] learned in the process is that while this vintage piece of design has its idiosyncrasies, in general, the architecture has many useful features and is pleasant to work with. It is a bit slow, however. It runs at a mere 250 kHz and many instructions take several cycles to complete.

Sample of the natural-language-looking programming syntax for the assembler. (Example from page 68 of the instruction set manual for the OBP.)

One curious thing about the original assembler was documentation showing it was intended to be programmed in a natural-language-looking syntax, of which an example is shown here. To process this, the assembler simply mapped key phrases to specific assembly instructions. As [David] points out, this is an idea that seems to come and go (and indeed the OBP’s successor AOP makes no mention whatsoever of it, so clearly it “went”.) Since a programmer must adhere to a very rigid syntax and structure anyway to make anything work, one might as well just skip dealing with it and write assembly instructions directly, which at least have the benefit of being utterly unambiguous.

We’re not sure who’s up to this level of detail, but embedded below is a video of [David] coding the assembler and OBP emulator, just in case anyone has both an insatiable vintage thirst and a spare eight-and-a-half hours. If you’d prefer just the files, check out the project’s GitHub repository.

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