The IT behind Alan Shepard's space flight

The IT behind Alan Shepard's space flight

Summary: Alan Shepard became the first U.S. astronaut 50 years ago today. The mission set off a 50-year string leading to companies like Space-X and Virgin Galactic that are aiming to commercialize space. Here's a look at the computers behind NASA in 1961 and what counted as "high-speed" data transmission.

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TOPICS: Hardware, CXO, IBM
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Alan Shepard became the first U.S. astronaut 50 years ago today. The mission set off a 50-year string leading to companies like Space-X and Virgin Galactic that are aiming to commercialize space.

Art Cohen, former manager of the Space Computing Center for IBM, walked us through the IT systems behind Shepard's flight. Cohen, who had a team of 80 to 100 people providing analytics and analysis to ensure Shepard made it back, takes us through the computing time warp.

Gallery: America's first small step into space - 50 years ago

Among the notable points from IBM's final report on Project Mercury:

  • IBM developed the Mercury Tracking and Ground Instrumentation System.
  • The equipping and testing of the system was contacted to the Western Electric Company.
  • The ground system consisted of a worldwide network of tracking sites to monitor conditions, a control center at the Goddard Space Flight Center, the Mercury Control Center at Cape Canaveral and another in Bermuda that served as a backup.
  • IBM was responsible for processing flight data during orbit and re-entry to supply a real-time record of spacecraft status to mission control.
  • Cohen was the designer and number cruncher for the system.
  • Big Blue had to install three large computers, two 7090 transistorized ones---which were new at the time---and one vacuum tube 709 computer. The 7090s were "duplexed" for redundancy. After all, NASA wasn't quite sure about these transistorized computers, said Cohen. "Vacuum tubes were seen as more reliable," he said.
  • The IBM 7090 computer complex (right) made a go, no-go decision to Mission Control. The 709 in Bermuda also made a recommendation.
  • IBM had to design and maintain the launch monitor subsystem.
  • The 7090's role was to determine flight trajectory and smooth the position of the spacecraft. It also predicted the future position of the spacecraft.
  • The 709 calculated normal orbital flight data and trajectory dynamics.
  • High-speed data rates ranged from 7090 messages at a 400 millisecond rate, or about 1,000 bits per second. Those messages contained position and velocity vectors.

Here's a look at the high speed data links:

  • All of this data went to a plotboard---a 30 inch by 30 inch dual arm display marked with a 1024 by 1024 grid. Data pairs were converted and applied as a X-Y plot.

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Topics: Hardware, CXO, IBM

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13 comments
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  • Makes you wonder.

    My wristwatch has more computing power than the entire Mercury program had available to it. My laptop would have been incomprehensible to them fifty years ago, without a recognized logo on it they would have thought it came from outer space.

    So why after all these advances does it take Windows forever to boot?
    terry flores
    • RE: The IT behind Alan Shepard's space flight

      @terry flores

      Good question, when in the 1990s they rebuilt the circa 1945 ColossusII enigma codebreaker they raced it against a then state of the art Intel Pentium Windows PC running an enigma codebreaker application result: Turin 1, Gates nil.

      My Linux boxes take about 20 seconds to boot, unless I boot them without the X-Server (the GUI) in which case its about 11 seconds.
      AndyPagin
      • RE: The IT behind Alan Shepard's space flight

        @AndyPagin See that link between the Ber<a href="http://vb.maas1.com/">m</a>uda Tracking Station & Goddard Space Flight Cen<a href="http://www.tran33m.com/vb/">t</a>er? More than twenty-years later we were still using that 110 Bits per second connection as a backup for Shuttle flights in the 80s. I know because I designed the system that tracked the status of all the space to ground stations and ground stations to NASA datacomm and telecomm connections. NASA, except for a brief time in the late 50s through 1969 has been run on a shoestring. For all I know that old cable is still in use today.
        alasiri6
      • RE: The IT behind Alan Shepard's space flight

        @AndyPagin
        Yea, i Agree in the 1990s they rebuilt the circa 1945 ColossusII enigma codebreaker they raced it against a then state of the art Intel Pentium Windows PC running an enigma codebreaker application result: Turin 1, Gates nil. Thanks
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      • RE: The IT behind Alan Shepard's space flight

        @AndyPagin
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  • RE: The IT behind Alan Shepard's space flight

    IBM needs to step up it's game. Those 7090s will never sell without a tablet form factor an an intuitive touch interface!


    Fun anecdote for my morning, thanks.
    SlithyTove
    • RE: The IT behind Alan Shepard's space flight

      @SlithyTove
      At least there was no danger of you leaving it in your car & someone nicking it.
      AndyPagin
  • Old Tech

    See that link between the Bermuda Tracking Station & Goddard Space Flight Center? More than twenty-years later we were still using that 110 Bits per second connection as a backup for Shuttle flights in the 80s. I know because I designed the system that tracked the status of all the space to ground stations and ground stations to NASA datacomm and telecomm connections. NASA, except for a brief time in the late 50s through 1969 has been run on a shoestring. For all I know that old cable is still in use today.

    Steven
    sjvn@...
    • RE: The IT behind Alan Shepard's space flight

      @sjvn@...

      Fantastic! Thanks for that tid-bit! This was a really good article! It is so interesting to see the history of computing, and the space program.
      JCitizen
  • Space and technology

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  • RE: The IT behind Alan Shepard's space flight

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