Queens College Math Major Recounts IBM’s Contributions to Space Race

Arthur Cohen, Queens College ’50 was running IBM’s Watson Scientific Computer lab at Columbia University when he was asked to pull up stakes and move to Washington, where he had worked for the company in an earlier assignment. IBM had new plans for him.

It was 1959, and preparations were under way for the nation’s first effort to put a human being in space. Cohen’s assignment: take charge of the development and implementation of computer and communication systems for the program, dubbed Project Mercury.

Cohen wasn’t sure what to expect. “I didn’t really know much about space,” he admits. “My background was in mathematics.” But as it turned out, mathematics was what space flight was all about.

At Cape Canaveral, FL, two years later, astronaut Alan Shepard, sealed into a space capsule atop an 83-foot Redstone rocket, was launched 115 miles into space on a suborbital flight down the Atlantic Missile Range. The 15-minute flight propelled Shepard at 5,000 miles an hour. Cohen’s contributions figured crucially in the success of the mission and factored into subsequent U.S. manned space flights for decades to come.

“I had the privilege of working with a great team of people,” he says. “But none of them are well-known, nor are most people aware of the computer support that made Mercury and other space missions possible.” Computing, Cohen says, “was the silent partner.”

2011 marked the 50th anniversary of Shepard’s historic flight—and an occasion for Cohen, now 83, to look back on the challenges and triumphs leading up to it. He was interviewed widely in the media and spoke at Cape Canaveral on behalf of IBM. At the 1911-2011 IBM centennial celebration last June, he and many of his surviving Project Mercury colleagues were honored for their accomplishments.

Cohen didn’t start out with his eyes on the stars. “I enrolled in QC as a chemistry major in 1945, but left for the Army toward the end of World War II,” he says. After resuming his studies in 1947, he switched his major to math. When he wasn’t in class or studying, he played soccer and hung out with the Dead End Boys, a non-Greek fraternity that drew members from all races, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Among his proudest accomplishments at QC, he says “was being elected King of the Campus in 1949.”

After graduating in 1950, Cohen worked as an actuary and an economic analyst, eventually signing on with IBM’s new applied science department in 1952. It was at the department’s data-processing centers that he gained his first experience using mathematics and computers, running literally hundreds of different jobs, from market research to gravimetric analyses for oil exploration. In 1959 he was named manager of the IBM Space Computing Center in downtown Washington. His assignment: Help

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Contact: Phyllis Cohen Stevens
Deputy Director of News Services

Maria Matteo
Assistant Director of News Services