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Icons of Progress

The Apollo Missions

IBM was heavily involved in the Apollo missions, providing computers for multiple ground locations including Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Houston, Texas, Mission Control Center. Perhaps the most visible contribution, however, came in the form of the instrument unit or guidance system for the famed Saturn V rocket that propelled humans to the Moon.

Designed by NASA, and built and programmed by IBM at the Space Systems Center in Huntsville, Alabama, the Saturn instrument unit (IU) was the computer nerve center for the launch vehicle—controlling the Saturn rocket until Apollo was safely headed to the Moon. It determined when to fire the Saturn’s three rockets, when to jettison them and where to point them. Included in the IU’s equipment complex were devices to sense altitude, acceleration, velocity and position, as well as the computer to lay out the desired course and give control signals to the engines to steer the Saturn on that course.

Apollo flights had so much information to relay, that their computers had to report in an electronic form of shorthand. Even in shorthand, however, it took a circuit capable of transmitting a novel a minute to get the information to NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center—now the Johnson Space Center—in Houston, Texas. Receiving this enormous amount of data was a powerful IBM computer whose sole task was to translate the shorthand into meaningful information for Apollo flight controllers. The IBM System/360 computer absorbed, translated, calculated, evaluated and relayed this information for display. It was one of five System/360 machines used by NASA for the Apollo 11 mission. The same System/360 computer that processed the data for the first lunar landing from 240,000 miles away in Houston, also calculated the liftoff data needed by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin to rendezvous back with the command module piloted by Michael Collins for the flight back to Earth.