In the last post, I shared some of my experiences with the changes in education that resulted as a consequence of the launch of Sputnik. Today, I want to talk about how Sputnik advanced our computer and communications infrastructure during the United States’ quest to put a man on the moon as a fulfillment of John F. Kennedy’s charge at the beginning of his presidency.
To begin this quest, let’s look at the state of computers at the beginning of this post-Sputnik period. The ‘Cold War’ was being tackled here on earth while we were making progress in our missile technology. The two progressed hand-in-hand! Computers were critical elements in designing and building the launch vehicles and satellite systems as well as the transfer of data between these spacecrafts and satellites and our earth stations.
I grew up in Downey, CA, the home of North American Aviation. In fact, I lived a mere few blocks from this facility that designed the various space capsules, including the Apollo modules. North American Aviation created a special division, Autonetics that provided much of the computerized resources that made these space probes ‘sing’. They also conducted extensive research into computer technology and capabilities. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
State of Computers at the Beginning of the 1960’s
Where were we in computer technology at the beginning of the 1960’s? Compared to today’s computing power, the United States, Russia, and the rest of the developed world were in the ‘Dark Ages’. There were relatively few computer manufactures: IBM, Honeywell, and Univac. Each of these companies produced large, mainframe systems. While the transistor was first developed in 1948 and improved in the mid-1950’s, but most computers were still using vacuum tubes and electromechanical equipment at the beginning of the 1960’s.
Sophistication-wise, computer technology had advanced from the time when a computer designer and engineer would be needed to operate the computer. We were even beyond the point when a computer programmer was required to operate the computer. We had actual operating systems emerging, even though they were relatively crude by today’s standards.
But these mainframe computers were huge. They filled good-sized rooms and required special air conditioning systems. And they were fairly ‘dumb’; they generally had less memory capacity than today’s digital watches! Input was via punched paper tape or magnetic tape, which was still a luxury. Their virtue was their speed. They were able to store programs and process numbers at an amazing rate compared to the use of the advanced calculators of the day. As the decade progressed, punched cards became more common for both input and output; Direct Memory Access Storage (DMAS) were just beginning to be used. Both the physical memory of the computers and the storage systems were very limited. AND, each computer was a ‘stand-alone’ device that could not easily be connected with other computers!
Role of Computers in the ‘Space Race’
The launch of Sputnik triggered the ‘Space Race’ between the United States and Russia. But venturing into space required more sophisticated launch vehicles, calculation of flight paths, and especially to maintain communications between a remote spacecraft and an earth-based monitoring station. These communication protocols were not available at the beginning of the decade of the 1960’s; initially only crude signals were used to transfer information. This state would not suffice to send men into outer space. Consequently, the ‘Space Program’ would require the development of several technologies, including:
- Improving communication protocols;
- Collecting information in the remote satellite or space capsule;
- Sending this information back to monitoring stations accurately and rapidly;
- Capturing these data and feeding them into the computer;
- ‘Crunching’ these data to obtain useful information; and,
- Completing these processes in near ‘real-time’.
At the beginning of the 1960’s, these tasks were beyond the capabilities of most computer and communication systems. But, due to the work of large teams of engineers, programmers, and communications experts, these tasks were being addressed and solutions developed. By the time we landed men on the moon during the summer of 1969, only forty years ago, we had put into practice the technologies to solve these requirements. The ‘real Space Race’ was who would solve these problems first!
What did it take to accomplish these tasks?
It took funding, lots of funding, from the government. It also took setting these developments as a national priority; President Kennedy started this process in 1961. It would also take some new approaches to solving these ‘system’ problems. After the launch of Sputnik, President Eisenhower put into place two of the agencies that would charge with these tasks: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Advanced Research and Projects Agency (ARPA). These two groups oversaw the issuing of contracts and monitoring the progress of the multitude of contractors who enabled our conquest of space. These civilian agencies were outside the scope of the military priorities, so they were not ‘tempted’ with the compromise of the quest for space to develop defense systems. The latter would come as a side effect of the ‘Space Race’; the space launch vehicles would also develop the technologies to produce our fleet of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). In the end, both goals were achieved.
As a result of the ‘Space Race’, technologies were developed that would enhance our everyday lives. The computers and communications technologies enabled:
- Medical telemetry systems, such as those used in most hospitals today;
- Advanced imaging systems, such as the CAT scans and MRI imaging used in hospitals;
- Reduction of computer systems size, producing the minicomputers used by businesses and office automation systems;
- Creation of electronic and switching systems which were more efficient and faster;
- Implementation of Communication protocols, such as those used in today’s telecommunications (telephone) systems and real-time analysis of data; and,
- Implementation of Advanced protocols for computer communications, such as TCP/IP for Local Area Networking (LAN) and routing protocols for Wide Area Networking (WAN) that enabled the development of the Internet.
- The World after the ‘Space Race’
By the end of the 1960’s, we lived in a whole new world. We had landed a man on the moon. We now could launch space craft as an almost routine activity. We were monitoring our astronaut’s bodily functions in ‘real-time’ as if they had been in the next bed in a hospital. Technology had advanced beyond our wildest dreams of those of only a decade before.
Some of these advances changed our daily lives. When we made an international telephone call, it would probably be ‘bounced’ off of a satellite instead of traversing an undersea cable. Microwave towers were now sending our long distance calls from point to point rather than going through physical wires. We also had modems for connecting a ‘dumb’ terminal to a remote computer over the telecommunications circuit. We were experiencing the ‘Death of Distance’. Our worlds were changed for decades to follow; the theoretical and technical foundations were established during this decade of incredible accomplishment.
Was the ‘Space Race’ expensive? Indeed it was! Were all the technologies successful? No they were not! But we began to see the future, and it was wrapped up in digital ‘ones and zeros’; we were going to grow up digital. Are we richer today for these expenditures of large sums of money? Indeed we are! How did we get here? Quite simply, in October, 1957, the Russians sent a small (less than 200 pound) satellite into low space orbit.
The Consequences of this ‘Space Race’ on my Life and Career
How did all of this affect me? While I did not encounter most of these technologies until I was in graduate school in the mid-1960’s, I was very quickly immersed in them. I learned how to convert analog signals to digital data. I learned to ‘crunch’ these digital data through statistical programs running on minicomputers to assess the success of my lab experiments with SPSS. My world was expanded and enhanced by these technologies.
As a consequence, I embarked on an amazing career journey as a data analyst, educational technologist, and teacher of computer science. I learned that I didn’t need to be a computer engineer, even though I learned to build my own logical control devices with both analog and digital circuits. But above all else, I learned how to use technology as a tool. That was the real outcome of all these advances.
Next Time: We will examine the context of this ‘Space Race’ — the ‘Cold War’. Join us for that continuing adventure…