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The Best ‘Computor’ Ever?

By Destination Z posted Mon December 23, 2019 03:35 PM

You’ve all heard about computers, but have you come across ‘computors’ before? Do you have any idea just how important they were for America’s space race victory? And can you name any of them?

It all started back in the early days of NASA. Actually, this goes back to when NASA was the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), since it didn’t change its name to NASA until 1958. We’re talking about 1953, when NACA employed a group of technical women whose job was to carry out math calculations. This group of ladies were dubbed ‘computors.’ So what exactly were they using their mathematical skills to calculate? In those days, they performed a number of incredibly complex calculations, including reading the data from the black boxes of planes and gust alleviation.

Perhaps the best known of these computors was Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, born in 1918. Johnson worked with the other computors from 1953 to 1958. From 1958 until she retired in 1986, she worked as an aerospace technologist.

What makes Johnson different from the other computors? She stands out because of the work she did on the space program. It was Johnson who calculated the trajectory for the 1959 space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space. She also calculated the launch window for Shepard’s 1961 Mercury mission. Perhaps her most famous calculation was John Glenn’s orbit in 1962, when he became the first American to orbit the Earth. The story goes that NASA started to use electronic computers to calculate Glenn’s orbit around the Earth, but John Glenn insisted that it was Johnson who verified the computer’s results. In fact, he refused to fly until she checked the figures for him and said that they were correct.

NASA had five System/360 IBM mainframes installed to handle the amount of data sent back from space missions. The data was compressed to more manageable, less complex limits, and the mainframe converted it back into information that flight controllers could use. The machines also calculated lift-off data that was crucial for Apollo 11 astronauts after their stay on the moon. Johnson worked on these mainframes, and she calculated the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 moonflight. Additionally, she worked on Apollo 13’s failed mission to the moon in 1970, creating backup procedures and charts that helped get the crew safely back to Earth. Johnson also added working on the Space Shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite and plans for a mission to Mars to her already impressive resume.

All this, you might say, already makes Johnson an outstanding individual, but there’s more. She co-authored 26 scientific papers. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She also earned five NASA Langley Research Center Special Achievement awards between 1971 and 1986.

Her resume isn’t the only thing that makes this West Virginia girl outstanding. Johnson is an African-American. When she first began her work as a computor, she had to endure workplace segregation that was all too common back in those days. She and her non-white colleagues would have to work, eat and even go to the toilet in separate areas from the other computors working there.

Many of today’s IT people grew up using calculators to work out even the simplest sums. As a result, they don’t have the ability, like Katherine, to do hard sums. Calculating three-dimensional space in order to calculate celestial navigation by hand, for example, would be out of the question for most modern IT workers. These days, there’s an app for it—whatever type of mathematics you’re working on.

Johnson stands out in the world of computing (and computors) for being able to do complex math that most people shied away from, for standing out in a world where prejudice was endemic and for making people listen to what she had to say.

And, by the way, NASA unplugged its last mainframe in 2012. It was an IBM z9.

Trevor Eddolls is CEO at iTech-Ed Ltd, an IT consultancy. A popular speaker and blogger, he currently chairs the Virtual IMS and Virtual CICS user groups. He’s editorial director for the Arcati Mainframe Yearbook, and has been an IBM Champion every year since 2009.