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IBM and NASA: Working Side-by-Side to Land on the Moon

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This Saturday, July 20th, is the 50th anniversary of one of humanity’s greatest technological achievements: landing people on the Moon, and subsequently returning them safely to Earth. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy challenged Americans to reach the Moon by the end of the decade, and in 1969 an extraordinary collaboration between the public and private sectors delivered on that challenge.

IBM engineers monitor data from a Saturn Instrument Unit during an Apollo launch, at Cape Kennedy, Florida. Throughout the manned space program, IBM and NASA personnel worked side-by-side.

The Moon landing, and the innovations that led up to it, shaped the dreams and aspirations of a generation and beyond. The effort jump-started an unparalleled period of progress in almost every field of industrial and consumer technology. It attracted the world’s best to America’s graduate science programs. It inspired children to want to be astronauts, and young scholars to focus on science and math. And it instilled in the American consciousness a belief that technology—guided by values and noble goals—could make the world a better place.

The Apollo Moon landing was the culmination of America’s greatest technological mobilization since World War II. An integral player in the manned space program was IBM, which provided the high-performance computing that helped NASA envision the decade-long push for Moon. As the Apollo program took shape, IBM continued to provide and create new, leading-edge technology. As James Tomayko describes in his book Computers in Spaceflight, “The story of computers in manned mission control is largely the story of a close and mutually beneficial partnership between NASA and IBM.”

IBMers also worked side-by-side with NASA flight directors to navigate the spacecraft from Earth orbit to lunar orbit and back, and were trusted advisors throughout the mission.

Standing before a model of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module, IBM Houston programmers Susan Wright (left), Mitch Secondo (rear) and David Proctor look over equations they have programmed into NASA computers at the Manned Spacecraft Center.

Gene Kranz, NASA Flight Director for Apollo 11, describes that relationship:

“[IBMers] became a critical component of the mission control team. During the Apollo program they sat [at] the computers downstairs. They provided us all the recommendations as to whether they were operating properly, not operating properly, what we should do about it….

IBM always solved the problems…. [W]e were all working on the boundaries of knowledge, technology and… experience. And the team I wanted to have in place working those computers was IBM, and we trusted them implicitly. When they said they were a go, we were a go.

But values were implicit in every employee I ever worked with at IBM. We knew they were committed, they were dedicated, they were trustworthy, they would give absolutely their best and they would tell you straight out whether they could get the job done or they needed more time to do it. Values were the core of the IBM professionals that we worked with.”

None of this was easy. The computerized tasks that we take for granted today were completely new in the 1960s. Programs and operational protocols had to be invented for use in the Space Program.

Jon Nordstrom, an IBM College Recruiter for the NASA Space Program, remembers, “You wrote these programs with a pencil and an eraser!”

And Chuck Michalik, an IBM Associate Programmer on the Apollo 11 Mission, says, “It was sort of a combination of art and science.”

Today’s technical and societal challenges are no less daunting. The stakes are just as high, and trusted relationships are just as critical. With advances like Quantum Computing and AI, IBM is helping to change every industry for the better. We’re harnessing the power of AI to understand unstructured data and transform it into actionable information in the fight against cancer. We’re using Quantum Computing in the search for alternative energy sources to combat the effects of climate change. We’re helping our clients deploy blockchain to modernize their logistics and supply chains.

As with our NASA collaboration, IBM remains a trusted partner with our clients for today’s essential challenges, and for the critical challenges to come. This week, please join me in celebrating the unprecedented achievements of the IBM men and women who took us to the Moon and back. And remember that dedicated people working with world-leading technologies and unshakable values have the power to achieve anything!

-Sam Gordy, General Manager, IBM US Federal

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