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    50 Years Of Manned Space Flight - An Interview With A Lead Engineer For The Mercury Program
    By Hank Campbell | May 5th 2011 01:00 AM | 1 comment | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Here, I present for you a snippet from the Western Electric document Introduction to Project Mercury and Site Handbook on one of the most important aspects of a space program that barely existed; ground control and monitoring.   You know, the part where they actually know what the astronaut and his capsule are doing and decide whether or to send him into space and bring him back down, a wholly unnatural act.

    a.  Direct the entire flight in respect to the mission;
    b.  Monitor the flight in respect to aeromedical and capsule systems;
    c.  Keep the astronaut and range stations informed of mission progress;
    d.  Coordinate all of the range stations and maintain a smooth flow of information to all of the units involved in the operation;
    e.  Supply information and alert the recovery team forces following the decision to start the reentry.

    That's it.   That is the document pertaining to the computers and the monitoring and the role of the technology behind achieving America's first flight into space 50 years ago today.  That's not a spec.  That's not even a lunch menu.

    Surely, any lead engineer who was handed this in 1959 had to look around and wonder if the people above were out of their minds.  And he had to be scared, right?    Nope.  "I had worked on a lot of things successfully.  I never thought in terms of failure," said Arthur Cohen, manager for the IBM Space Computing Center during the Mercury program, who took some time to talk with me about what things were like leading up to their first big success, launching the first American into space, which happened 50 years ago today.

    Tom Wolfe made test pilots famous in "The Right Stuff" but nowhere have you read a sentence about the silent partners in that space flight, the engineers in the background of the Mercury Program, that could easily have gone, "They were called computer programmers.  And no knew their names."

    What about the engineers behind the monitoring and tracking systems, the guys who had to create a way to do real-time trajectory dynamics during the critical launch and early orbit phase of Alan Shepard's famous flight using computers with vacuum tubes and relying on radar ground stations?  Radar!  To monitor a capsule that was going to leave the atmosphere, though no one even knew where that ended.   What kind of 'stuff' did they have?

    To start, they weren't really computer programmers in the way we think of them now, they were mathematicians.  No one else could use a computer then because they were so arcane.   Today computers are mundane, like the space program itself.

    "We're so used to these space shots that it's become sort of blasé but back then everyone was excited about the space program," Cohen said. "No one ever talked abut the computer system."

    There may have been scarier ideas on the minds of top brass - communists throwing nuclear bombs on us from space platforms, as Lyndon Johnson is reputed to have said - and a HAM launch earlier that hadn't gone all that well.    But three weeks earlier the USSR had sent Yuri Gagarin into space so there was time pressure; and a lot of unknowns, too many to process.   50 years ago no one knew what to expect.    Certainly Alan Shepard, sitting on top of a 6-story-high load of solid rocket propellant that would have him hitting 11 G's and over 5,000 miles per hour as he ascended into the Last Frontier, had to have had multiple outcomes going through his mind for the longest 15 minutes of his life.

    But a group of guys stationed at a command center who had put together the systems that were going to use that radar(!) to make it work using information provided over teletype to vacuum-tube computers knew what to expect.

    NASA Project Mercury Tracking System 1961

    Surely they had doubts? "I never worried it couldn't be done," Cohen said about the most elaborate predictive analytics system ever built, "I never thought that at all. Down to the lowest level guys, we hired great people.   They had leadership quality and they were technically capable."

    Technically capable.   You get an idea of the humility in that.   The people on his team went on to lead the Gemini and Apollo systems that put men on the Moon and even the Sabre Reservation System that buys your airline tickets today.

    How is that sort of quiet confidence even possible?   Maybe it is something in the culture from the 1950s.   America had saved the world in the previous decade, mobilizing to a war economy in six months, beating enemy estimates on how long America would take to produce tanks and guns by years. America was unstoppable, America couldn't fail.

    And then there were those test pilots up on the dais in 1959, the first astronauts, clean cut and in suits and modest.   They looked like average guys, maybe even a little shorter than average, perhaps just a little more fit.  They went to church, some of them had been Boy Scouts.   They were just Americans who were picked to do a job, like anyone else.   Who didn't want to exude that same quiet confidence?


    You see their impact on flight culture even today.  If you meet a male pilot before any commercial plane flight, he is just a regular guy, he might even have a voice like Pee Wee Herman, but the moment he gets on the speaker system and you are in your seat he has a deep guttural voice, slightly Southern.   Women seem to be immune from this effect but all male pilots turn into Chuck Yeager when they sit in that chair.   50 years later, that is what people in the cabin expect.

    And the mission was not just exciting from a cultural point of view but was also personal, Cohen said.   "We met with Gus and Deke and the other astronauts, we knew these guys.   It was very easy to stimulate my team."

    Art Cohen with astronauts Donald Deke Slayton and Virgil Gus Grisom, and NASA Lynn Dunseith Glenn Lunney Howard BillTindall
    A visit by NASA to the IBM Project Mercury team at Goddard Space  Flight Center.  Art Cohen is 4th from the left, astronaut Gus Grissom is middle front and astronaut Deke Slayton is second from the right.  Grissom flew the second U.S. manned space flight, commanded the first two-man Gemini mission and was scheduled to command the first Apollo flight when he died in a launch pad fire.  Early space travel was not for the faint of heart.   Photo: IBM

    Creating a system using, as the criteria specified, 'existing technology' and 'off the shelf' components was no trivial thing but they knew where to go theoretically, Cohen said.   A talk with him is whirlwind of Cowell's method and weighted position/velocity and numerical integration discussions.  And NASA was something new and dynamic and mission-oriented and they had a specific mission and wanted to do whatever it took.

    "We worked with NASA, with something called the STG (Space Task Group)...these were the best people.  Great, great people," he said.

    But it can't be just luck and great people, can it?    Surely there have been confluences of great people we now recognize in hindsight.  The Founding Fathers, for example, had some luck in all knowing each other, and you could say the same about The Beatles, but they also created great people by their presence and made them better than they otherwise were.  Cohen has no problem crediting others and takes little for himself despite his obvious impact.

    It's that quiet competence thing again.   Test pilots and Mercury astronauts became famous again because Tom Wolfe talked about them, and his book was good enough it was made into a seminal movie.  Getting Cohen to talk about the obstacles in the massive computing achievement was no easy task.  Don't get me wrong, we talked.  We talked a lot.   His understanding of the Mercury Program's meaning in the cultural milieu, before, during and since, is without compare.   He just refused to think it was a daunting task.

    His only concern.   "Getting the specs was tough.   They kept changing, even until June of 1960."

    Oh, is that all?

    In 2004, President Bush announced America was going back to the Moon - and it would take until 2020 to do it, even though it only took 10 years to do it the first time, doing engineering  and predictive analytics and numerical integration with the modern-day equivalent of an iPhone.    The spec wouldn't even be finished until 2016 in the current environment.    Talking to Cohen during the interview, I felt like if I got him and 80 of his friends together and told them they had 16 years to put a man back on the Moon, he might say 'We could all be dead by then, how about if we do it in six months?'   And maybe they could.   The other old stuff still works well too.  A few years back the Pratt&Whitney Rocketdyne guys did hot-fire altitude tests using liquid methane on the RS-18 engine from 40 years ago and it still worked just fine also.

    NASA is commonly regarded as the force that put men into space and not the many outside experts who did the work.  Unlike today, government researchers then were not the way to go as a default.   In the otherwise comprehensive This New Ocean history created by NASA, the contributions of Art Cohen and the IBM team behind the computers only gets two pages.  

    We need to change that.   While it's true, "No bucks, no Buck Rogers" has always been the case and NASA wrote the checks, it took a lot of quality people who haven't been seen in movies to make that all happen.   Certainly 2 million people and 5 years of the Mercury program were not all equal, though Cohen was generous in spreading the credit around.

    These folks took it seriously because the mission was time-based and 'acceptable risk' was the norm.    The modern 'zero defects' mentality and the tentacles of bureaucracy and regulatory constraints that have nothing at all to do with missions where project managers use a joint confidence level of 50% mean great people will be more important than ever.

    And they were great, it's just time more people said it.    When I talked to my mother about the interview with Cohen, her reflections on the period as a proud citizen were poignant; school stopped, people went outside.    As a child living in Vero Beach I recall making the drive to Merritt Island to watch a Saturn V launch Skylab.   I can recite the names of the Mercury astronauts without hesitation today, even though it ended before I was born.   And IBM was clearly on the cultural map due to the tremendous accomplishments in the space program.    "2001: A Space Odyssey" did not have a computer named HAL (IBM one letter over) because pop culture did not know who the company was.

    Hopefully a few people will be able to recite some of the engineers behind the ticker tape parades in decades to come.   Congratulations to Art and his friends - they are supposed to have a 50th reunion  of their own this summer.  If they decide to hold some classes on how to make miracles in aerospace happen again, I hope they film it.   I'd watch it and I hope some people at NASA would as well.

    Mercury Redstone III May 5 1961
    Mercury Redstone rocket May 5th 1961

    References not linked above:

    Project Mercury Real-Time Computational and Data-Flow System

    Comments

    Good to see these unsung heroes getting some credit :)