Data Handling Manager for RGNext

Dan Nunnelee, Data Handling Manager for RGNext, and the operations and maintenance contractor for Western Range equipment, stands in front of a recently retired "Cyber" mainframe computer he helped set up at Vandenberg back in 1982. 

VANDENBERG SPACE FORCE BASE -- Control Data Corporation (CDC) was once a significant supercomputer supplier, a name familiar to everyone in the computer industry, competing with companies like Cray Research and International Business Machines (IBM).

On April 29, 2021, the Western Range at Vandenberg shut down the last CDC-built mainframe computers, known as “Cyber” systems, still in service anywhere. The Air Force originally put these large computers into operation in 1982 to process data for various space and ballistic missile launch programs, such as Minuteman III, Peacekeeper, Delta II, and the Space Shuttle. Initially, the three water-cooled mainframes were installed in Building 488 on South Vandenberg AFB.

Two-ton motor-generators were needed to supply the Cybers with specially smoothed power to protect their sophisticated electronics. Two computers processed data for safety evaluations during flight, and the third handled data reduction before and after launches.

Dan Nunnelee, currently the Data Handling Manager for RGNext, the operations, and maintenance contractor for Western Range equipment, helped set up the computers as part of Data Center 50 at that time. Nunnelee recalled, “It was April 1982 when we went to develop new Cybers for launch support. Pat Whitmore, the Station Controller, and Jay Getchel, Frank Polton, and Paulette Johnson were all senior computer operators. It took many days to open up floor tiles to follow cables from one piece of equipment to another trying to understand these new platforms.”

Three years later, the Cybers moved to Building 7050 on North Vandenberg AFB as part of the new Data Center 80, which employed 28 workers on three shifts to operate ten workstations. The Cybers ran real-time operating system software written in-house to process both classified and unclassified data. A primary task was Metric Data Reduction, which created trajectory information to accurately identify a vehicle's specific location at each point during its flight.

During this time, the center would commonly go through 150 to 250 boxes of fan-fold paper a month and keep 10,000 pieces of reel-to-reel tapes, paper printouts, and other physical media in their vault. Nunnelee stated, “They would normally produce about a train car full of printouts for their customers after every launch.” Data backups were saved daily, weekly, and monthly and stored off-site if files required restoration after any computer problems.

In 1993, other computers replaced the mainframe’s functions during launches, but the Cybers continued to process pre-and post-mission data. Over the years, the Cyber systems were upgraded many times, including eliminating the water cooling and installing large battery-fed uninterruptable power supplies to prevent electrical outages. The final versions were two Cyber 960 mainframes: the Black Cyber for unclassified processing and a second called the Red Cyber for classified data.

In July 2019, BT Federal, which bought CDC, stopped providing support for the computers when their last maintenance technicians for these systems, Jerry Hines and Jerry McCann, retired. Contractor RGNext then developed a customized PC-based system, called Desk Top Cyber, to emulate the old mainframes. The new system still uses the old operator terminals and runs the same data analysis code, much of it written in the old FORTRAN programming language. A computer not much larger than the standard home computer replaced the large racks of equipment to handle the workload.

The Cyber 960s were officially unplugged and replaced with the new system on April 29, 2021. Nunnelee noted, "These mainframe computers have been dependable data processing workhorses of the Western Range. It was a great 39-year run. DC-80 had four supervisors, 40-plus operators, three system engineers, two system administrators, and eight technicians.”

A former Olympian was also on staff, Johnny Gilbert, as a senior computer operator. Gilbert was the backup sprinter in the 1960 Olympics for 'Bullet Bob Hayes,' then considered the fastest man alive. As they are turned off and replaced with emulated systems, they will never be forgotten as 100% launch capable supporting systems, which allowed the Western Range to support so many diverse launch programs.


Recommended for you