IBM celebrates tech behind first U.S. manned space flight

NASA teamed up with IBM to create the technology to put Alan Shepard into space

As NASA marks the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. manned space flight, IBM is celebrating the mathematicians and engineers who helped make it happen.

While people around the world held their breath and watched astronaut Alan Shepard blast off on May 5, 1961, workers at IBM sat on the edge of their seats watching their technology go to work. IBM not only had been in charge of installing and maintaining three "large-scale" computers for the mission, it also was also responsible for developing the technology that enabled NASA to track the spacecraft and provide real-time information to Mission Control.

"Alan Shepard was the bravest of the brave, and his flight ushered in America's space age," said Arthur Cohen, the mathematician who led IBM's Project Mercury Team. "The IBM team had the honor of applying computing power and mathematics to support the project.... We experienced an unforgettable sense of excitement when Alan Shepard safely accomplished his mission. I will forever remember May 5, 1961, and the incredible team of NASA and IBM men and women I had the opportunity to work with."

Cohen, in an email to Computerworld noted that IBM's work involved an early manifestation of real-time and predictive analytics. What IBM technicians put together for NASA helped to usher in the days of real-time communication.

According to IBM, its team of more than 75 employees working on the Mercury Project from 1959 to 1963 developed a "real-time channel" called the IBM 7281, which could receive up to 1,000 bits of data per second.

They also created advanced software programs and mathematics models to analyze incoming data and provide mission-critical information to NASA flight controllers throughout the space flight.

"The real-time aspect -- receiving asynchronous data -- was new and breakthrough," said Cohen. "The 7281 real-time channel and the data that was streaming in had to be received and evaluated in real time to be able to use information to drive displays at [Cape Canaveral]. That was brand new. It had never been done before. Of course, real time then was 1,000 bits of data per second. Today, it's, of course, trillions of bits per second."

Cohen noted the monitor that took in all the real-time information was particularly challenging to develop, but its creation also had long-term benefits on the advancement of computing.

"The monitor accepted information real-time and decided which software needed to be addressed to proceed so Mission Control would get the information it required," he added.

He said that the other technology that had a big impact on the future of computing was the mathematics IBM developed specifically for the mission. Cohen said IBM's team had to create the math needed to determine the spacecraft's trajectory, correct the trajectory, and track the capsule into re-entry or abort.

To provide real-time information to Mission Control, the IBM team built and ran three large-scale computers that funneled in all flight information. There were two 7090 transistorized computers installed at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and a 709 computer at the Bermuda Control Center, which acted as a backup to the project's Mission Control facility at Cape Canaveral.

Cohen remembers the entire project as an incredible amount of painstaking work.

"It was a tremendous amount of work," he said. "We sometimes worked 36 hours straight or more. As we got closer to launch, we were waiting for liftoff to occur and we couldn't leave the computing centers, so sometimes we had to sleep there with the computers.... There was a lot of suspense involved as we anticipated a man going on top of a rocket. We knew the computer systems would work, but we were in suspense of the first U.S. man going to space."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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