Discuss as:

How computers got us into space

Retired IBM scientist Arthur Cohen reflects on the beginnings of human spaceflight in 1961.

When you look back at the past 50 years of human spaceflight, don't forget the computer scientists who helped make it all possible.

That's the message Arthur Cohen wants to pass along on the golden anniversary of NASA astronaut Alan Shepard's 1961 Freedom 7 spaceflight, a 15-minute suborbital outing that marked one not-so-small step on the way to the moon. The successful flights made by Shepard and other members of the Mercury 7 depended on the work done by Cohen and thousands of other workers behind the scenes.

"There was a lot of attention given to the seven astronauts," Cohen recalled in an interview this week. "The thing that was hardly mentioned was the fact that there were computers that were doing the work."


Today, Cohen is an adjunct professor of mathematics at Nassau Community College in New York, but back in the early 1960s he was manager for the IBM Space Computer Center in Washington, where he directed the development of all computing support for Project Mercury. Two IBM 7090 computer systems at NASA's nearby Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, plus a backup IBM 709 computer in the Bahamas, provided all the raw number-crunching power to plot the trajectories of those early spacecraft. Western Electric and Bell Labs provided the supporting communication network.

"In those days, 1,000 bits per second was high speed," the 83-year-old Cohen told me.

The data streaming down from space was funneled through Goddard and then onward to Cape Canaveral, where mission controllers kept watch on the real-time channel. "All the displays at the Cape were actually provided by us," Cohen said. Somewhere around 75 to 100 people were on IBM's team to make sure the computers were in sync.

A picture from the old days shows Cohen and members of his team gathered around the computer center, with Mercury astronauts Deke Slayton and Gus Grissom in their midst. "We did wear white shirts — that's the way IBM was back then, right? — but maybe our sleeves were rolled up," Cohen joked.

IBM

The IBM computer team mixes it up with Mercury astronauts Gus Grissom (fifth from the right) and Deke Slayton (second from the right). Arthur Cohen is fourth from the left.

After Project Mercury, Cohen turned to other, more down-to-Earth projects at IBM in New York, and retired from the company in 1988. But he says the spaceflight experience set the tone for his career and those of a whole generation of engineers. "The people who worked on the project did go on to Gemini and Apollo, and some of the people went on to the airline reservation system. One of my guys went on to the air traffic control system and managed that.," he said. "There was a lot of fallout from this stuff."

IBM

Arthur Cohen is now an adjunct professor of mathematics at Nassau Community College.

Today, almost everything about spaceflight and its computing requirements is different.

"Things have improved, but it's basically the same kind of stuff. You still have to check data, edit data, smooth data," he said. "You're still driving displays. But I think the space game is going to be much more about understanding something about deep space. It'll be a different challenge. Here, you're talking about doing an orbit in 88 minutes. There, you may be talking about years [of orbital calculations], so things may be going somewhat slower in terms of feedback about what's happening."

Despite all those diferences, Cohen suspects that the level of dedication among computer scientists will be as high as ever.

"The future for them can't be any brighter," he said. "Computers are going to be behind everything that can help mankind, whether it be medicine, or crop yields, or space. Whatever it might be, computers are going to be important. Who knows what we need to do?"

To learn more about Cohen and the contributions made by Project Mercury's "unsung computers," check out IBM's news release and this report from the DVICE blog. Do you have some behind-the-scenes stories about the past 50 years of spaceflight? If so, feel free to share your tales in the comment section below.

More on spaceflight history:


Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page or following @b0yle on Twitter. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," Alan's book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.