To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Alan Shepard's flight into space, IBM scientist Arthur Cohen, who worked with NASA on the program, reflects on the preparation for and impact of this momentous event.
In the video (above) released by IBM, Professor Arthur Cohen, the mathematician who led IBM's team that supported Project Mercury, recounts Alan Shepard's flight into space and the role of technology in the mission.
"Alan Shepard was the bravest of the brave and his flight ushered in America's space age," said Professor Arthur Cohen. "The IBM team had the honor of applying computing power and mathematics to support Project Mercury to provide real-time data to NASA Mission Control. 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."
While people around the world were on the edge of their seats on May 5, 1961, the IBM team was counting on the technology they had developed to track the spacecraft and provide real-time information to Mission Control. IBM worked to address the unique data processing challenges presented by the real-time information requirements of NASA's Mercury mission.
The team developed a "real-time channel" called the IBM 7281, which could receive up to 1,000 bits of data per second -- a breakthrough innovation at the time. They also developed advanced programs and mathematics to analyze incoming data and provide "mission critical" information to NASA flight controllers throughout the space flight for evaluation and necessary action. Their work represented the early days of real-time and predictive analytics, which today is a major growth initiative for IBM. Even then, as it is today, IBM was in the business of making sense of data.
To provide real-time information to Mission Control, the IBM team installed and maintained three large-scale computers which funneled all flight information: two 7090 transistorized computers located at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and a 709 computer in Bermuda. The two IBM 7090 computers determined powered flight trajectory parameters and the present position of the spacecraft. They predicted future spacecraft position and transmitted continuous data for display at Mission Control throughout the flight. The IBM 709 computer calculated normal orbital flight information in addition to its most important function -- determining trajectory dynamics during the critical launch and early orbit phase. The 709 computer analyzed data from local radar and telemetry sources in real-time.
IBM's work on Project Mercury helped lay the foundation for the company's work on NASA's Gemini and Apollo space missions and how businesses and governments exploit data today -- from air traffic control systems to online travel reservations.