End of an era

A milestone occurred over the weekend.

NASA turned off its last mainframe computer.

This marks the end of an era for both NASA and the computing industry.


From the 1950s up through the 1980s NASA was a computing superpower in the world.  It was one of the few places with the people and the money to maintain the massive mainframe computers from companies like IBM and Cray.  They has the cash and the knowhow to keep these behemoths up and running, and projects to actually make use of them.

In the summer after my 6th-grade year in school, I got a chance to attend the Space Camp in Huntsville Alabama.  Yes, the very same camp that inspired the horrible movie by the same name. (we alumni don’t talk about that movie)

It was only the second year that the camp was open.  It was an interesting time to be there.  It was still learning what it wanted to be.  The dorms weren’t finished yet, so we stayed in an army barracks on Redstone Arsenal Army Base. The camp cafeteria was the snack bar at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center museum, and we (the campers) got to do lots of things that I’m sure they don’t get to do today.

For one, we got a behind-the-scenes tour of some of the NASA training and research facilities there. One of the places was a computer room.  Yes, we got to wander around inside a room housing a mainframe computer.  Pretty sure it was an IBM machine, but I honestly don’t remember.  I was too fascinated by the lights and spinning reels, the noises and the people running around keeping the massive mind working. We had techs and programmers talk to us about the beast and what it took to keep it running.  They talked about what it was used for (ballistic simulations for satellites…I remember that), and how fast it was (don’t remember that part).

It was amazing.

In looking back I think that’s part of what hooked me into the computer world.

All of us on that tour were impressed.  We were all geeks in the making and being a science nerd wasn’t yet cool.  This was a place where it was cool to like computers and science.

So it’s a bit sad for me to see that NASA has turned off the last of their mainframe computers.

But, it only makes sense.

The technology world has moved on.  As NASA faces budget cuts and other challenges, things like Virtual Machines and distributed processing make much more sense for them. The same goes for many, many government agencies.  They are facing budget cuts and companies like IBM have turned their innovation to different horizons and different technologies.

So, I bid a fond farewell to the era of Big Iron in the space industry.

NASA shuts down its last mainframe | Deep Tech – CNET News

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