The IT lessons of 50 years of space flight

May 5 marks the 50th anniversary of Alan Shepard's flight as the first American in space. IBMer Art Cohen was part of the team that tracked him across the sky. He shares his story with Editor Nick Wakeman.

In today’s world, the ability to instantly communicate and share information across the globe is pretty much taken for granted.

But obviously it wasn’t always that way.

On May 5, NASA will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Alan Shepard’s flight as the first American in space.

And I had the opportunity to talk to Art Cohen, who managed IBM Corp.’s team that ran NASA’s Space Flight Center for the Mercury program.

“We were the first real-time system,” Cohen said. That statement was about as close to bragging as Cohen got when talking about the historic mission.

But he is using the opportunity of the 50th anniversary to highlight the role computing played in the flight and how computing is an overlooked aspect of the story.

“People knew all about the astronauts and mission control, but nobody knew anything about computing or that computing was behind a lot of it,” he said.

IBM’s role was to run computing centers at Cape Canaveral in Florida, Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, and Bermuda.

Transistors were so new that they weren’t really trusted, especially when a man’s life was at stake. So IBM ran vacuum-tube computers – its 709 model – in tandem with newer transistor based models, the 7090.

At the Cape, a 7090 worked as an impact predictor, monitoring the launch and re-entry and keeping tabs on where the rocket and capsule would go if the mission had to be aborted.

Other computers were gathering radar data and telemetry information.

“All the data came into Goddard,” Cohen said. And IBM then fed the displays at mission control.

One of the challenges was building a monitoring system to gather, track and distribute all the data at at then blazing speed of 2,400 bits per second.

“A lot was happening,” he said. “We were driving all the displays at the Cape, wall maps, flight controllers, retrorocket controllers. We were sending them the data.”

Another challenge was the mathematics to analyze the data, which fed decisions on the launch and re-entry and where to point the radars at sites around the world.

“We translated where the capsule would be and knew exactly where it would go across horizon and gave the radar sites the acquisition data to pick it up,” he said.

Shepard’s flight was a success, of course, and it was followed by other Mercury flights and then the Gemini and Apollo programs.

“What we did had a lot of impact on the other space flight programs,” Cohen said. But he holds no illusion that there are people today who say, "They did it this way on Mercury, so I’m going to do it this way."

“I don’t think that way," he said. "Smart people will figure out ways to do things."

But the legacy does extend beyond NASA.

Cohen left for another project after John Glenn’s first orbit around the Earth. The systems and processes were pretty stable by that point, and he wanted to move back to New York.

He worked on other projects for IBM that used mathematics and computing to build large complex systems.

Others on his NASA team also went onto other projects, including work on the air traffic control system and airline reservation systems.

“All these people went on to use what they learned,” he said. “Our people went on to do a lot of different things, and they taught new people what they learned.”

The tools and the power of the computers may be greater today than 50 years ago, Cohen said, but the principles remain: using computing power to solve a customer’s problem.

He said that 50 years ago with Shepard’s flight, he and his team had been up for 48 hours and were catching catnaps on the computer console. They were elated with the success of the flight, but they were not part of the cigar-smoking celebration at mission control.

“We didn’t get any cigars,” he said.

Cohen will be in Florida on Thursday as part of the anniversary celebration of Shepard’s flight. I hope this time someone gives him his cigar.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.