Who Created the First Software Used in a Spacecraft?

12 Comments on this Post

  1. This is a difficult question to answer because you’re not really being specific. What kind of computer, what purpose? Do you want the names of people, or the organization?

    Most guidance computers for rockets were operated by ground computers and communicated with the vehicle by radio. Do those count? Most general computers were based on the ground as well, until hardware was not only sophisticated enough, but small and light enough. What about those?

    Under the assumption you are referring to the first digital computer in space, here’s what I think the answer is (the long version):

    The Minuteman I intercontinental ballistic missile project which started active service in 1962 had a need for an on-board flight computer. This was due to the effect of nuclear radiation on radio communications with ground-based guidance computers, thus rendering the vehicle useless and dangerous as an ICBM used to carry and deploy tactical nuclear weapon payloads. The answer to this was the Autonetics D-17B flight computer.

    Autonetics, based in Anaheim, CA. at the time (was a division of North American Aviation, now a part of Boeing through several mergers), was responsible for the system both hardware and software, Thompson Ramo-Wooldridge Incorporated (a part of Northrop Grumman at the time, now TRW Automotive) was responsible for the guidance equations and designed the targeting computer system which ran on an IBM 709 mainframe computer which made the system remotely programmable from Strategic Air Command (SAC).

    According to the “Proceedings of the Second Meeting of the Minuteman Computer User Group” which was held at Disneyland Hotel California in June 11-12, 1970, a Mr. Donald H. Geister, Research Engineer in the Aerospace Engineering department at the University of Michigan was listed as one of the Executive Committee members who was present and listed “Software”. If I had to name one person responsible for programming the D-17B, it would probably be him. Granted the system was built and programmed by many people and probably had plenty of committee based contributions, because nothing that goes into space in whole or in part, especially that day and age, went up based on one person acting alone.

    The first successful “all-up” test of all stages including re-entry for the vehicle was accomplished in February 1961, from the Air Force Missile Test Center in Florida. This was the first time a digital computer flew in space as far as I know.

    Cool Wiki picture:

    I have a picture of the D-17B sitting in the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA.

    What amazes me is that this computer not only had a user group, which held a conference, at Disneyland of all places, NOT IN SECRET!!!

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