One of my fondest childhood memories was the Apollo 11 moon landing. Too big at 10 years old to watch from my former “space shot observation post” atop my dad’s shoulders, I stood dutifully at the edge of my lawn at 9:30 a.m. on July 16, 1969, looking eastward to “see” the latest Saturn V rocket lift its payload off the pad at Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral) and hurl it into the final frontier. In fact, I lived in St. Petersburg, on the West Coast of Florida, but it was still thrilling to see from a distance the propulsion trail draw a puffy, white vertical ascent in the blue sky while listening to the classic dead pan of Mission Control’s chatter on my trusty AM radio.
Four days later, I was a witness to history; watching the now iconic video of those first steps on our closest celestial neighbor. What the images lacked in sharpness and color depth was more than made up by the color commentary from the TV announcer and the crystal clear images floating around in my own head. It filled me with so much glee that I actually shed a couple of tears.
My affinity for all things NASA continued into adulthood, though somewhere along the way, I stopped collecting mission patches, model kits, and the like. I suppose my priorities changed with age. Sadly, I acquiesced to the increasingly popular view that there was too much work to do here on Earth to be spending huge amounts of money in space. That said, much to my surprise, I again found myself having to choke back a few tears last year when the Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down at Kennedy Space Center for the last time—almost exactly 41 years to the day after Armstrong and Aldrin left their boot prints on the lunar dust. I had lost a convenient punctuation for my internal calendar: the launch of another space mission from the Cape.
I thought that was all there was to it. But in early February, I felt another tug at my heartstrings when it was announced that NASA had unplugged its last mainframe—a z9 located at its Huntsville, AL, Marshall Space Center. I thought about the pivotal role the mainframe had played in U.S. space exploration over the years, beginning with the IBM 650 in pre-NASA years, to the IBM 360s that saw the astronauts to the moon and back in the ’60s, and the many later models that provided so much support to our space shuttle missions.
What really bothered me was the way it was handled in the press. WIRED Magazine said that NASA was doing away with “the last vestiges of its swinging ’70s heyday, when astronauts were played by stars such as Farrah Fawcett.” The writer of the piece had to ask NASA’s current CIO, Linda Cureton, what a mainframe was, and she reminisced about her early days as a systems programmer back when writing assembly language programs for the 360 at Goddard Space Flight Center “was still cool.”
Another article said mainframes were good for solving computational problems for spaceflight “back in its heyday” but noted that, despite their reputation “for security and for being able to process bulk data transactions quickly,” mainframes have been replaced by “smaller, faster, and cheaper Linux and UNIX systems that are more scalable and easier to manage.” That one floored me. Cureton issued the coup de grâce with this quote in the article: “The end user interfaces are clunky and somewhat inflexible, but the need [for a mainframe] remains for extremely reliable, secure, transaction-oriented business applications.”
Hmm. I realize that a large NASA budget may be hard to justify in the current economic climate, but I wonder if this commentary from NASA’s CIO regarding mainframes, assuming that it’s accurate, reflects a different reason why we should ratchet back manned space flight missions for now. It seems that IQs have suddenly dropped sharply within the technology leadership at NASA. The high standards and quality of mainframe computing cited by the CIO are exactly what once characterized the mission operations—from top to bottom—within NASA. NASA engineers were the proverbial engineer’s engineers, subscribing to the highest standards to guarantee the lives of astronauts sitting atop such a highly complex system as the Saturn V/Apollo kit, or the space shuttle.
Perhaps it’s this same lackadaisical attitude around standards—paraphrasing Cureton’s quotes in PC Magazine, “Why do [programming in] hexadecimal arithmetic? There’s an app for it!”—that has seen so many mainframes decommissioned over the last decade. That’s a far more frightening thing to contemplate than the end of manned missions at NASA.
Interestingly, the next article in the online links at the end of one of these reports led to a piece discussing NASA’s embrace of clouds. Enough said.