Dr. John E. Kelly III and Apollo-era IBMers Discuss Moon Landing

On Wednesday, July 17, IBM programmers and engineers who worked on the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 joined Dr. John E. Kelly III, IBM Executive Vice President, to discuss the systems, software and operations that helped make the mission to the moon-landing possible, and how those experiences laid the groundwork for mission-critical systems widely used in business today.

The event took place at Johnson Space Center in Houston and was livestreamed. You can view a replay at www.ustream.tv/channel/4uTr5z6aft8

Joining Dr. Kelly to recognize and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission were Homer Ahr, former IBM programmer; Dave Proctor, former IBMer who coded the lunar descent maneuvers; Sadie Stanley, former IBM radar programmer; Phil Pollacia, former IBMer who managed the preflight trajectory; and Tommy Steele, former IBMer, lead engineer on the Saturn Instrument Unit.

It’s been fifty years since Apollo 11 landed on the moon, but for Merritt Jones, an IBM project manager who was among more than 4,000 IBM employees who worked alongside NASA to land astronauts on the moon, it feels like “it happened yesterday.”

A group of NASA programmers and engineers who worked on the Apollo project meet once a month in Round Rock, Texas, and share stories from then and now. A new film captures the “Round Rock Gang”’s recollection of the era and their work.

IBM programmer Sadie Stanley had decided in high school she wanted to be a programmer and decided in college she wanted to join IBM. She remembers the thrill of hearing President John F. Kennedy making his bold claim to land a man on the moon. “Gosh, that sounds like a great idea,” she said.

The IBMers worked every day for months, slept little, and felt the enormous pressure of getting everything perfect. And on July 20, 1969, they watched with the rest of the world as Neil Armstrong brought the landing craft down onto the surface of the moon.

“He had ice water in his veins,” remembered IBM programmer David Proctor. “He stayed calm, he stayed cool, he stayed collected.” IBM programmer Homer Ahr recalls watching—and praying for Armstrong to land successfully. “Dear Lord, just help him put it down, put it down.”

The IBMers exhaled, celebrated—and slept, in some cases for the first time in days. Now, 50 years later, they will meet together to share their memories in a live event from Houston moderated by Dr. Kelly. The IBMers are featured a new video about their work on Apollo and the emotions they felt when the mission was a success.

“The fact of the matter is, we’d never have gotten to the moon, and we’d have never landed, and we’d have never come home safe, if it hadn’t have been for the IBM hardware and software and operations support,” said Homer Ahr. “It couldn’t have been done. Man cannot think that fast. The computers could, and we could build them. And we did.”