NASA Shuts Down Its Last Mainframe Computer

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NASA has just powered down its last mainframe computer. Umm, everyone remembers what a mainframe computer is, right? Well, you certainly must recall working with punched cards, paper tape, and/or magnetic tape, correct? That does sound a little archaic. “But all things must change,” wrote Linda Cureton on the NASA CIO blog. “Today, they are the size of a refrigerator but in the old days, they were the size of Cape Cod.”


The last mainframe being used by NASA, the IBM Z9 Mainframe, was being used at the Marshall Space Flight Center. Cureton described the mainframe as a “ big computer that is known for being reliable, highly available, secure, and powerful. They are best suited for applications that are more transaction oriented and require a lot of input/output – that is, writing or reading from data storage devices.”

An IBM 704 mainframe from 1964. Via Wikipedia

In the 1960’s users gained access to the huge mainframe computer through specialized terminals using the punched cards. By the 1980s, many mainframes supported graphical terminals where people could work, but not graphical user interfaces. This format of end-user computing became obsolete in the 1990s when personal computers came to the forefront of computing.

Most modern mainframes are not quite so huge, and excel at redundancy and reliability. These machines can run for long periods of time without interruption. Cureton says that even though NASA has shut down its last one, there is still a requirement for mainframe capability in many other organizations. “The end-user interfaces are clunky and somewhat inflexible, but the need remains for extremely reliable, secure transaction oriented business applications,” she said.

But today, all you need to say is, “there’s an app for it!” Cureton said.

Newsreel Footage of Explorer 1

Here’s a blast from the past: 54 years ago on January 31, 1958, Explorer 1 was the first satellite sent into space by the United States. The U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency was directed to launch a satellite following the Soviet Union’s successful Sputnik 1 launch on October 4, 1957. The 13-kg (30-pound) Explorerer satellite was launched by 3-stage Redstone missile. This newsreel footage also includes a famous scene where Werner von Braun and scientist James Van Allen lift a model of the satellite triumphantly above their heads.
Continue reading “Newsreel Footage of Explorer 1”

Happy 90th Birthday John Glenn!

He’s an American space icon, and today he turns 90 years of age. “John Glenn is a legend, and NASA sends him our best wishes on this major personal milestone,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement. John’s legacy and contributions to the continued progress of human spaceflight are immense. His example is one we continue to emulate as we push toward farther destinations in the solar system.”

What better way to look back a Glenn’s achievements than this 1963 NASA video, found in the National Archives Repository.

Hat tip: Rachel Hobson

Obama: This is a ‘Capture the Flag’ Moment for Commercial Spaceflight

President Barack Obama called out for pizza today and ending up talking with the crews of STS-135 and Expedition 28 on the International Space Station. Well, that was his story anyway, but he did talk with the crews, offering a challenge for commercial space companies, as well as remembering the first flight of cooperation between the US and the Soviet Union – the Apollo-Soyuz test project which launched 36 years ago today — and reiterating the challenge of sending humans to Mars.

The STS-135 crew brought a flag that was flown on STS-1, the first shuttle mission, up to the ISS. “We’ll present the flag to the space station crew and it will hopefully maintain a position of honor until the next vehicle launched from US soil brings US astronauts up to dock with the space station,” STS-135 commander Chris Ferguson told the president.

“And I understand this is going to be sort of like a capture the flag moment for commercial space flight, so good luck to whoever grabs that flag,” Obama said.
Continue reading “Obama: This is a ‘Capture the Flag’ Moment for Commercial Spaceflight”

A Love Affair With Space

Need a space-related smile for the day? Science comedian Brian Malow has a love affair with space travel that began in early in his life, and it may include happily ever after. Thanks to Brian for sharing this video with Universe Today!

End of the Shuttle Era: Q & A With Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach

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CAPE CANAVERAL Fla. – He has been with the shuttle program for the past three decades and has witnessed both its tragedies and its triumphs. NASA’s Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach reflected on the end of the shuttle era when interviewed this week. He talked a bit about his plans for the future as well as what he thinks people can expect from both him and his team on launch day.

Q: The Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test (TCDT) for STS-135 has just wrapped up, is this is a period of accelerated work for you and your team or is this a time when you can catch your breath?

Leinbach: “This TCDT was a little different; we had a very busy period getting the crew
ready for this mission. On July 4 we’ll have a bit of a break and then things
will pick right back up again as we get ready for launch.”

Q: What do you think you will be feeling when that final launch occurs?

Leinbach: “I don’t know, I mean I have thought a lot about this…I don’t know what it’s
going to be like. For the last flight of Discovery we had one more launch for
both Endeavour and Atlantis, well now this really and truly the last flight of
the shuttle program… so it’s going to be a very reflective time.”

Leinbach gestures toward his former secretary before the start of the interview. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

Q: Do you think anything will be special about this mission?

Leinbach: “The launch itself will be very much any other launch. When the guy’s are
working on the consoles they are very serious about what they are doing.
They won’t be distracted by the fact that it is the last one.

Q: Speaking of your job – it keeps you very busy, have you had any time to reflect?

Leinbach: “For the moment I still have a lot to do concluding TCDT, but this Saturday I
am planning on driving out to the launch pad and just looking up at Atlantis
and just soaking it all in, all by myself.”

Leinbach started working for NASA as a structural engineer in 1984, his words are softly spoken which tends to lend them even more weight. His first mission as launch director was STS-114. This was the first shuttle launch after the loss of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003. Leinbach led the recovery team searching for Columbia’s debris in Texas. A year later in 2004 Leinbach was awarded the Presidential Rank Award, which is given in recognition of long-term accomplishments.

Atlantis will carry the four person crew of STS-135 to the International Space Station on a resupply flight designed to keep the orbiting outpost well stocked after the shuttles are decommissioned. The mission is scheduled to last twelve days, launching on July 8 at 11:26 a.m. EDT. The crew consists of Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley and Mission Specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim.

The Launch Control Center or LCC is where the final "go" "no-go" for launch is determined. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

Guest Post: Newly Born: the Science of Astronomy

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Editor’s Note: Astronomy journalist Govert Schilling has written a book that looks at the 100 most important discoveries since the invention of the telescope 400 years ago, called “Atlas of Astronomical Discoveries.” In Schilling’s distinct style, he takes the reader on an adventure through both space and time. Schilling has written this guest post for Universe Today:

Astronomy is a newborn science.

Yes, I know astronomers like to say it’s the oldest science in the world. In a sense, our distant ancestors who wondered about the lights and motions in the night sky were the first practitioners.

But look at it this way: until four centuries ago, we all had the same opportunities in the field. Or lack thereof. Two eyes and a brain – that has been the main instrumentation in astronomy for thousands of years. Not much, really.

Little wonder then that astronomy was in a pretty primitive state at the start of the seventeenth century. Granted, scientists had come to realize that the Sun occupied the center of the solar system, rather than the Earth. They had seen the occasional comet and Stella Nova, and they knew about the slow change in the orientation of the Earth’s axis.

But no one knew the distances to the planets, let alone to the stars. No one had the slightest clue about the true nature of the Sun or the Moon. Meteors were a mystery; planetary satellites and rings were unheard of, and to many, the Milky Way was just that – a cosmic river of milky clouds.

The Milky Way as seen near the Very Large Telescope in the Atacama Desert. Credit: ESO/Y. Beletsky

More importantly, no one realized that the Universe is in a constant state of flux, albeit at an extremely slow pace. That stars were once born and will eventually die. That the planets in our solar system are built from the ashes of an earlier generation of stars. That the Universe hasn’t always been there.

Most of the astronomical knowledge that we take for granted these days, was completely unknown four centuries ago. That’s why I say astronomy is a newborn science.

And the telescope was its midwife.

A replica of Galileo's telescope.

The invention of the telescope, probably around 1600 in the Netherlands, ushered in a whole new scientific era. It paved the way for hundreds of revolutionary discoveries and revealing insights. It brought astronomy to where it is now.

On the occasion of the International Year of Astronomy (2009), I decided to devote a book to the hundred most important astronomical discoveries since the invention of the telescope. Recently translated into English as Atlas of Astronomical Discoveries (Springer, 2011), it is a lavishly illustrated and beautifully designed history tour of the grandest science of all, chockfull with surprising details and personal anecdotes.

What I realized when writing the book was that the young science of astronomy went through a number of very distinct stages, just like a human being goes through childhood, puberty and adolescence before reaching full maturity.

In the seventeenth century, astronomers were like children in a newly opened candy store. Wherever they aimed their rather primitive telescopes, they beheld new discoveries, but this embarrassment of riches was also an undirected endeavour.

During the eighteenth century, the search became more systematic, with diligent observers surveying the skies and taking stock of everything that the telescope brought into view. This was no longer a first reconnaissance, but a real exploratory phase.

Then came the nineteenth century, with the advent of photography and spectroscopy, and the discovery of mysterious cosmic denizens like spiral nebulae, white dwarfs, and interstellar matter. Nature was trying to tell us something profound, and astronomy stood on the threshold of major theoretical breakthroughs that would explain this surprising variety of phenomena.

Finally, the twentieth century saw the emergence of an interconnected, all-encompassing view of cosmic evolution. We discovered the energy source of stars, the true nature of galaxies, the expansion of the Universe, and the humble position of our home planet, both in space and in time. Moreover, we finally understood that the atoms in our bodies were forged in the nuclear ovens of distant suns. That we are truly one with the Universe.

So has astronomy grown into a mature science? With the current generation of giant telescopes, the full exploration of the electromagnetic spectrum, and the advent of space science and computer technology, it’s tempting to answer this question with a resounding ‘yes’. Then again, ninety-six percent of the cosmos consists of mysterious dark matter and dark energy; we have no clue about the origin of our Universe, and no one knows whether or not life – let alone intelligence – is rare or abundant.

Personally, I feel that astronomy is still in its early years. And that’s exactly why it fires the imagination of so many people. The questions that astronomers try to answer are the same questions that a ten-year old would ask. The answers may be difficult, but the questions are simple, because the science is young. What’s it made of? How did it all start? Are we alone?

Certainly, I’d love to see a 2411 edition of Atlas of Astronomical Discoveries, highlighting the hundred most important discoveries and breakthroughs that astronomers made in the 21st, 22nd, 23rd and 24th century. But I’m afraid I wouldn’t understand most of the issues that would be described.

Frankly, I’m glad to live during the youth of my favorite science. After all, I’ve always been fond of the curiosity, energy, creativity and the sheer sense of wonder of children.

Please, astronomy, don’t grow up too soon.

Govert Schilling is an internationally acclaimed astronomy writer in the Netherlands. He is a contributing editor of Sky & Telescope, and his articles have appeared in Science, New Scientist and BBC Sky at Night Magazine. He wrote over fifty books on a wide variety of astronomical topics, some of which have been translated into English, including “Evolving Cosmos; Flash! The Hunt for the Biggest Explosions in the Universe,” TThe Hunt for Planet X,” and “Atlas of Astronomical Discoveries.” In 2007, the International Astronomical Union named asteroid (10986) Govert after him.

“I believe this nation should commit itself…” Kennedy’s Moon Shot Speech to Congress

50 years ago today, US President John F. Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress to ask for support for the goal to “commit…before this decade is out, to landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Kennedy urged Congress to appropriate the necessary funds, which eventually was one of the largest financial expenditure of any nation in peacetime. Just 2 1/2 years after giving this speech, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. And in just over eight years after the speech, on July 20, 1969, NASA’s Apollo 11 mission would successfully fulfill Kennedy’s vision by landing the first humans on the moon.

Below is the transcript of the entire section on space:
Continue reading ““I believe this nation should commit itself…” Kennedy’s Moon Shot Speech to Congress”

Fast Cars and Hot Rod Astronauts

Corvettes were synonymous with the first US astronauts. Why? The story goes that a Florida car dealer named Jim Rathmann had a great marketing idea and negotiated a special lease arrangement with Chevrolet to provide the Mercury 7 astronauts with sports cars worthy of the performance required by a test pilot. The cars were fast and handled like a dream. Plus, the Corvettes back in the early 1960’s had what many would consider “space age” interiors. Six of the Mercury astronauts would take Rathmann up on his Corvette offer, but stalwart family man John Glenn instead decided he wanted a new station wagon. While there are stories of the Mercury astronauts racing each other in their Corvettes, reportedly Glenn’s wagon proved more useful. It was just the thing for those occasions when the seven astronauts needed to travel together.

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These sports cars would continue to be used by Apollo astronauts, and the association between the car and the space program continues even today. For example, the 1995 movie “Apollo 13” featured two era-authentic Corvettes, one of them used in a scene featuring Tom Hanks as astronaut Jim Lovell. The 2009 movie “Star Trek XI” opens in the year 2245, with a 12-year old James T. Kirk driving a 280-year old 1965 Corvette Sting Ray.

On May 7, 2011, approximately 30 of America’s surviving early astronauts gathered in Cocoa Beach, Florida to participate in a parade commemorating the 50th anniversary of Alan Shepard’s historic first flight for a US astronaut. Enjoy the video above where some of the astronauts are interviewed, briefly, and includes some vintage photographs of hot rod astronauts with their fast cars.

Source: GM

Rare and Unpublished LIFE Photos of Alan Shepard’s Historic Flight

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If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen how I was oohing and aahing about a wonderful set of rare and never-seen photographs of Alan Shepard, John Glenn, and the other Mercury astronauts released by LIFE.com in honor of the 50th anniversary Alan Shepard’s flight on May 5. Maybe LIFE saw my Tweets, too, as they contacted us, giving Universe Today permission to publish a few. Above, Shepard strides to the launchpad early on May 5 1961, with Gus Grissom close behind. Shepard reportedly joked to technicians who rode with him to the launch pad: “You should have courage and the right blood pressure” if you want to succeed as an astronaut. “And four legs … You know, they really wanted to send a dog, but they decided that would be too cruel.” In Shepard’s right hand: a portable air conditioner to cool the inside of his pressure suit before he enters the capsule.

See more below.

John Glenn crouches near Shepard's capsule, Freedom 7, along with technicians prior to launch. Credit: Ralph Morse/TIME & LIFE Pictures. Used by permission.

In this previously unpublished photo, John Glenn crouches near Shepard’s capsule, Freedom 7, prior to launch. In the book “Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard,” author Neal Thompson portrayed the fierce competitiveness between Shepard and Glenn over who would be the first astronaut in space, which sometimes bordered on the two disliking each other. But as the first flight approached, Shepard and Glenn spent a lot of time together training, and formed a bond. Glenn even put a few items in Shepard’s Freedom 7 capsule as a joke to lighten the intensity of the day, and this image shows Glenn’s excitement and joy as his fellow astronaut enters the spacecraft. LIFE photographer Ralph Morse said of NASA’s choice for who was making the first flight: “You know, I presumed, at that point, that they were saving Glenn, that having him circling the Earth for the first time would be better press for NASA. But you don’t know about these things. They had their own reasons, of course — complicated reasons, based on skills and personality and temperament — for choosing one man ahead of another.”

The Redstone rocket on which Alan Shepard flew into space, May 5, 1961. Credit: Ralph Morse/TIME & LIFE Pictures. Used by permission.

This previously unpublished image shows Shepard’s Redstone rocket before liftoff. “I never have been my own favorite subject,” Shepard once told LIFE, when asked how he felt about the rewards and dangers inherent in Project Mercury. “And I don’t think I’ve found anything new about myself since I’ve been in this program. We were asked to volunteer, not to become heroes. As far as I’m concerned, doing this is just a function of maturity. If you don’t use your experience, your past is wasted, and you are betraying yourself.”

Deke Slayton, Alan Shepard, and Gus Grissom share a laugh after Shepard splashed down following his successful flight. Credit: Paul Schutzer/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images. Used by permission.

This is my absolute favorite image of this set: Shepard shares a laugh with fellow astronauts Gus Grissom (right) and Deke Slayton upon his arrival at Grand Bahama Island, shortly after his successful flight and splashdown. Oh to be a fly on the wall to know what they were laughing about!

Read all about it! The Mercury astronauts read of their colleague Alan Shepard's heroics, Florida, May 1961. Credit: Ralph Morse/TIME & LIFE Pictures. Used by permission

No internet, no instant messaging, no Twitter or Facebook. The Mercury astronauts and the rest of the world had to wait for the next day’s newspapers to come out to read of Alan Shepard’s heroics. “Though the U.S. still has far to go to catch up with the Russians in space,” LIFE magazine noted in its May 12, 1961 issue, “Shepard went a long way toward lifting American heads higher.”

See many more images on the LIFE.com gallery. Thanks again to LIFE for allowing us to post these images.