Apollo Guidance Computer Activities

AGC: Conference 4 - Early Days at Intermetrics

Apollo Guidance Computer History Project

Fourth conference

September 6, 2002

Early Days at Intermetrics

ALEXANDER BROWN: I guess I do have a handful of questions. Really, partly about the Intermetrics experience. So I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about that period between forming Intermetrics and 1972 with the shuttle contract. What were you doing during that period? What sort of skill set had you brought with you from the Instrumentation Lab and what kind of work was Intermetrics able to do?

DAN LICKLY: Ed was already inventing GPS.

ED COPPS: : Thank you, Dan. What I recall--we left the laboratory in perhaps March of '69. Is that right? Larry Brock was one of the Apollo people who had left and gone to work somewhere. I can't remember. He called us and told us that there was a procurement out of Holloman Air Force Base to build CIRUS, the completely integrated reference instrumentation system. We were sitting in an office, not far from here, a little office. And he talked to us, and I was assigned to try and snag the Cirrus contract. I think Romney worked on it, but that was when we were five people, and I think I was certainly the principal person on it.

JOHN MILLER: You or Ginnie who typed it.

ED COPPS: And it had to do with a navigation system that was supposed to be the reference system, which could be used to test any other kinds of navigation systems. And so it was heavily laden with optimal filters from kinds which I had become acquainted with and had--I never was an expert in the field. I didn't call myself an expert in the field, but I was, as one has to do when one is sitting in a five-man office and that is the opportunity, I appointed myself the expert. And I became--I did a good job at getting us the contract and we won it. John certainly--I want to make sure that I credit you, John for helping me write the thing, but more for helping me figure out how to do the marketing on the thing.

We went down I remember to dig out John's old acquaintances down there and convince them of our legitimacy as a thriving--it was the kind of place that we took old busted pieces of electronic equipment and put them in the corner, pretended that they were working. We were doing everything we could to--like the Wizard of Oz--make a big puff of smoke, where there wasn't really much behind it. So we won that contract, and that was perhaps the second contract we had.

I remember we had a contract that we got from Bill Ryan. That was called a Gatwing Trainer, which was a little fluff thing down here. I think that was a gift perhaps from Bill Ryan to keep the wolf from the door. We won the Cirrus contract and that was a $200,000 fixed-price contract, which we did successfully and it enabled us to hire the first wave of people. Fred Martin, maybe Joe Saponaro as well, John Green, Neil Carlson, Ray North.

That was a fixed-price contract. Money was never a problem at the Instrumentation Lab. You know what I mean? The problem was get the job done. I know, because there were situations where I was flabbergasted at the amount of money. We wanted an analog computer hitched to a digital computer, hitched to a simulator of the equipment, so that we could simulate missions in which we could actually run software in the computer, and it would run a--they said, "You need two of these. You need one for the command module and one for them." I said, "How can we afford two of them?" And they said, "It isn't a question of affording it. How many do you need?" You know? If we said three, they would have given us three.

But, back to the difference, here we were five people, $200,000 fixed-price contract. We had to do a good job on the contract. We also had to make money or at least not lose money, and we made money. We made about I'd say 12 percent on the job, maybe--that would be $20,000. It was so much money that they actually came--these are words that I was just learning, and I'd forgotten--PCSA, DICASA(?) or some stupid bureaucratic body. They came and told us that that was excessive, that we had mis-bid the contract, that they weren't going to give us the money, because--it was all right if we lost $20,000, but we weren't permitted to make $20,000.

I made the case and I urged John and Jim Flanders to stand behind us that we demanded that they pay us the full amount. And they did eventually, but that was a confrontation that in my experience, I never expected, never expected. And I guess the gist of it is--Dan has asked me to speak about it, but that was 1969 and 1970. I think we were probably finished with it by the end of 1970.

JOHN MILLER: Something that today would be shocking: for some reason they decided to hold a press conference and they invited all the press to it in and typical Instrumentation Lab fashion, they gave heavy duty technical talks to all these press guys in the back. When they were finished, one of the press guys got up and aisd "What kind of contract do you guys have?" And a guy from MIT’s public relations office got up and said "Oh, we have this contract from NASA. When we run out of money, we tell them and they put more money on it" And this was the end. Can you imagine that today?

DAN LICKLY: It’s how a teenager deals with his parents!

ALEXANDER BROWN: How did the guys from the second wave of hires from the Instrumentation Lab find the transition from the Instrumentation Lab to a smaller private outfit?

ED COPPS: I invested about $20,000 in Intermetrics. It came from my retirement fund and part I inherited from my father.

JOHN MILLER: We raised initially about $90,000 that way. We had some grandiose ideas about what we would do – they were really not very well founded. So we scrambled to try to find something to do. Ed got this thing over at the transportation center, NASA gave us a contract to study compilers or something on those lines – just little jobs here and there, $50,000, $10,000, $100,000 – until in 1972 we got on the shuttle program which had an ongoing support which allowed us to do a lot of other things. But it was a real scramble. In the days before we got this, overhead rates, which are normally around 100-120%, were 1000% because we didn;’t have any business and were flat broke out of money.

 

FRED MARTIN: My story is slightly different from John. I don’t know when the CIRUS contract was complete.

 

ED COPPS: It was an 8 month contract.

 

FRED MARTIN: When I joined the company, I worked on that for a while. You asked about attitudes and transitions. I would say that, my own personal feeling, I was coming from a job where I had a lot of bureaucratic responsibility and I was going to a job where I would be an individual contributor. I looked forward to this: I was ready to do anything, even if I didn’t know how to do it. But in that period of time, we got a very significant contract. It wasn’t very big and it came out of the NASA ERC, today the Volpe Center, and they were interested in programming languages for the vague space station that people had on the drawing board. There were various people who had programming languages and we were given a contract to evaluate them and we had a lot of opinions about programming languages because of what we had gone through for six years. So we took that contract and we did produce an analysis but we also produced a repoprt that said that we really knew how to design new programming languages which would be for space and it would have cures for all the ills and bad things we had just suffered through. And we got someone friendly, shall we say at NASA, that would let us go ahead with this design. And we actually did come up with something. And I believe, I may be wrong about this, I think this was prior to the shuttle.

JOHN MILLER It was.

FRED MARTIN Oh. Okay, so that they were scrambling around on what to do and they had committed a certain amount of money to this programming language at that time which we called "Panel", which Ed named. And so when it came time to do the shuttle, they went from a space station to now a shuttle, Intermetrics was a quote unquote "prime contractor", to NASA because we were doing this little work. And all these other guys were lining up, IBM and Grumman and North American and all these big monsters were lining up to get the big stuff. And so we got to be a directed subcontractor.

In other words, when North American got the contract, they were told, "You have to take them and they're working on a language for us and that's the language you're going to be using," which nobody liked very much. I mean, there was a lot of grumbling about it, especially by the software contractor that North American hired, which was IBM. So that was in the period of 1970, '71, '72, '73.

ED COPPS: I have something to say about that which I've never told them and that is that before I left MIT, Jack Williams and I discussed using a language like MAC. Jack Williams took those ideas and was really the motivator for the job that came humming down the line from ERC a couple of years later. And I didn't give more than two or three seconds to that conversation that we had and maybe others had the same conversation with Jack. But I think that was one of the little kernels that actually came back around in a way that certainly profitably benefited, actually helped us tremendously in getting a foothold.

FRED MARTIN We found ourselves in an environment that was very foreign to us, having people from MIT was really foreign.

Changing Environments


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