Alan Shepard’s vault into space was pure thrills for my generation of Americans. I was a third-grader in White Valley School in rural Western Pennsylvania when Shepard, the country’s first astronaut, shot skyward over Florida on May 5, 1961. The teachers in the 8-room wooden schoolhouse had gathered all of the children in one room where there was a television set. We watched, transfixed, as the rocket launched at Cape Canaveral and Shepard, squeezed into a high-tech tin can, zoomed through space. For us kids, it was a mind-blowing peek into a future that seemed to beckon us.
What I didn’t appreciate at the time was that advances in computing (some of them very recent) had made Shepard’s amazing trip possible. Now I do. “Everybody knew about the astronauts, mission control and the booster rocket, but not many people are aware of the computer support that contributed to the success of Mercury and other space missions. Computing was like the silent partner,” says Arthur Cohen, who headed the IBM Space Computing Center and managed the computing systems that enabled the National Aeronautic and Space Agency’s Project Mercury missions between 1961 and 1963.
Today, 50 years later, excitement about computing has come and nearly gone. Our appreciation of computers caught fire in the 1980s with the rise of the PC and exploded in the 1990s with the Internet, but, these days, in mature economies, many people tend to take them for granted. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, computers are making possible more and more of the activities and experiences we have day to day and hour by hour. This anniversary of the Shepard launch is an opportune time to step back and appreciate what the brainiac pioneers of computing have done–and continue to do–for us regular humans.
Cohen joined IBM in 1952 as a mathematician and quickly rose through the ranks to become the manager of the data processing center at the Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory at Columbia University, the early site of what today is called IBM Research. In 1959, as the United States ramped up its space program, he and a team of talented IBMers got the job of developing and running the computing systems for Project Mercury, the country’s first manned space flight program. IBM’s role was to manage data collection and integration for launch, flight and re-entry. Cohen’s team programmed two IBM 7090 computers and an IBM 709 to gather and analyze everything from Shepard’s vital signs to flight trajectory parameters. It was the first-ever attempt to master high-speed asynchronous real-time data processing (and the beginning of data analytics, a mainstay of IBM’s business today.) It worked. Shepard’s capsule landed in the ocean right where it was supposed to. He was pulled aboard an aircraft carrier just 11 minutes after splashdown.
Most of the 100 engineers and scientists on the IBM team were located in a new building at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The building wasn’t even finished when the staff and computers moved in, and Cohen remembers tacking tar paper sheets over the entry to the lavatory so people could have a bit of privacy.
They were ready for launch on on May 2, 1961, but weather held things up. While the computing team waited, they tested their systems relentlessly. They also slept at their desks. Cohen caught a few winks by lying on the console of one of the 7090s, on top of the air conditioning vent. Within a couple of days, the metal on the vent had conformed to the shape of his body.
The team was exhausted on launch day–and tremendously relieved when liftoff finally came. In those early days, they didn’t see the launch on a television or track its progress on computer screens. Instead, they followed the progress of the rocket and capsule using mechanical plotting devices that drew lines on paper. One of Cohen’s team members was constantly on the phone with NASA officials in Florida. “As soon as it showed that there was liftoff, we all cheered,” Cohen recalls. “We were aware of each stage–launch, separation, flight rotation, re-entry and splashdown. With each one, everybody was screaming.”
Today, most NASA launches are dismissed with a shrug. People seem to be more thrilled by their smart phones than by space travel. And, even there, most people have scant awareness of all of the ingenious computing innovations that make possible their mobile lifestyles. The core technology is hidden from view. “Computers are the silent partners in everyday life today,” says Cohen. “In the future they’ll be an even bigger piece of life. They’ll be in everything.”
That will be tremendously satisfying for the engineers and software programmers who make the daily miracles of technology happen. But it would be fitting if they got some public recognition, as well. Here’s to the techies!