50 Years of Mainframe

How many computer platforms could justify a headline like that!?

Well, it has been almost 50 years since NASA landed a man on the moon, and brought him safely back to Earth, as directed by President John F. Kennedy in his now famous speech to Congress in May of 1961. As a nine-year-old boy, I watched this happen in real time late at night on July 20, 1969, on my parents’ black-and-white Viking television set in the den of our house in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada. It is indelibly imprinted in my memory, and at least to me, marks the apex of human achievement.

As many of us know, the IBM mainframe played a crucial role in getting humans to the moon and back. In fact, Gene Krantz, the NASA Flight Director of the Apollo 11 mission (and many other missions), said that “The systems information we used to make the go, no-go decisions was developed by IBM, and the ultimate go, no-go decision that day was provided to me by computers operated by IBM engineers within NASA’s Mission Control Center. Without IBM and the systems they provided, we would not have landed on the Moon.”

(Thanks to Bob Thomas at the Mainframe Experts Network on LinkedIn and founder of Enterprise Systems Media, for reminding me of this.)

The 50-year mark brings back a flood of memories for me, aided by documentary coverage of the Apollo program, and the other US space programs (as well as Russian space program) leading up to it, on PBS, the Smithsonian Channel, Fox, and other television networks. And of course, now that we live in the age of media, there are a plethora of YouTube videos and blog articles to peruse, as well.

A couple of months ago, Astronomy.com published an article that covers the accomplishment of IBM computing in the space program, written for non-computer geeks, but nicely captures some of what the new IBM System/360 mainframes could do – that is, multi-tasking and the ability to be networked for multiprocessing. By coincidence, the IBM System/360 mainframe computer became available right at the exact moment that NASA needed a computer with precisely those capabilities.

To be fair though, IBM’s computers were not the only computing systems that were responsible for the successes of the Apollo missions. A recent article on FastCompany.com, “This computer changed the world—and you’ve never heard about it“, tells the story of the on-board guidance computers used on the Apollo missions – a small, lightweight computer designed by MIT’s Instrumentation Lab division. This group was responsible for post-war space inertial reference equipment for US Air Force cold war bombers and self-contained submarine navigation systems for US Navy submarines. Their systems were able to help submarines to navigate under the polar ice packs, so they seemed like a natural pick for NASA’s guidance systems. These systems were real-time computers with highly advanced user interfaces.

And that’s not all. Many other US computer manufacturers were involved in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs – Honeywell, Singer, Sperry, Perkin-Elmer, Scientific Data Systems, General Motors, and many more – played vital roles in achieving the moon landing.

But NASA’s own records show just how important IBM’s mainframe systems – not just the System/360 computers, but also the model 7094 and 7090 systems that predated them were to the program. While Ford’s Western Development Laboratories subsidiary Philco Corporation was responsible for the requirements analysis of the new Apollo mission control center, they ended up selecting IBM systems over then-IBM rivals Sperry and CDC, as well as their own Philco systems. While there was no doubt a certain amount of politics and sneaky business practices involved, IBM dominated the mission control computing efforts, and this dominance lasted well past the Apollo program and into the Space Shuttle program.

It’s truly mind-boggling to think about how today’s most powerful and prevalent business computers started off as critical systems for something all together different. And they’re still out there – not the System/360’s or the model 7090’s, but their powerful, state-of-the-art modern-day descendants, like the z14 – which runs most of the business transactions for the world’s biggest banks and financial services companies. Today they manage the intricate complexities of the world economy – while 50 years ago they managed the seemingly insurmountable challenges and intricacies in getting a man on the moon before the decade was out. Has any other technology company had such a presence and record of accomplishment over so many decades, while remaining top-shelf relevant? Very few, indeed.

This historic anniversary means so much to those who lived through it – baby boomers for the most part – and to those with a keen interest in the history of the US space program. Interestingly, I recall 25 years ago, the year I was married, discussing with tech geeks like myself, how shocking it was that we haven’t even taken a second look at the moon. Imagine! Landing on the moon, and not going back for 25 years! Well, here we are at 50 years; many of the folks involved in the program are gone now, while many of the folks who just lived through it are retiring. Disappointing, to say the least.

To be fair, the US space program has sent unmanned probes to practically every heavenly body in the solar system, so it’s not like we’re sitting on our hands. Still, though, the thought of returning to the moon, even as a testing ground for a future Mars mission, is very exciting. Hey; maybe the political climate will allow (or even necessitate) movement toward a return. And if it does, I’ll be that the IBM mainframe will play a role!

In addition to the planning, development and management of the Planet Mainframe blog, Keith is a marketing copywriting consultant where he provides messaging for corporate and partner products and solutions.

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