Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight

MIT Press
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How human pilots and automated systems worked together to achieve the ultimate in flight—the lunar landings of NASA's Apollo program.

As Apollo 11's Lunar Module descended toward the moon under automatic control, a program alarm in the guidance computer's software nearly caused a mission abort. Neil Armstrong responded by switching off the automatic mode and taking direct control. He stopped monitoring the computer and began flying the spacecraft, relying on skill to land it and earning praise for a triumph of human over machine. In Digital Apollo, engineer-historian David Mindell takes this famous moment as a starting point for an exploration of the relationship between humans and computers in the Apollo program. In each of the six Apollo landings, the astronaut in command seized control from the computer and landed with his hand on the stick. Mindell recounts the story of astronauts' desire to control their spacecraft in parallel with the history of the Apollo Guidance Computer. From the early days of aviation through the birth of spaceflight, test pilots and astronauts sought to be more than “spam in a can” despite the automatic controls, digital computers, and software developed by engineers.

Digital Apollo examines the design and execution of each of the six Apollo moon landings, drawing on transcripts and data telemetry from the flights, astronaut interviews, and NASA's extensive archives. Mindell's exploration of how human pilots and automated systems worked together to achieve the ultimate in flight—a lunar landing—traces and reframes the debate over the future of humans and automation in space. The results have implications for any venture in which human roles seem threatened by automated systems, whether it is the work at our desktops or the future of exploration.

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About the author

David A. Mindell is Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing, Professor of Engineering Systems, and Director of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT. He is the author of Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing before Cybernetics and War, Technology, and Experience aboard the USS Monitor.

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Additional Information

Publisher
MIT Press
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Published on
Sep 30, 2011
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Pages
376
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ISBN
9780262266680
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Language
English
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Genres
Technology & Engineering / Aeronautics & Astronautics
Technology & Engineering / General
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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“[An] essential book… it is required reading as we seriously engage one of the most important debates of our time.”—Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age

From drones to Mars rovers—an exploration of the most innovative use of robots today and a provocative argument for the crucial role of humans in our increasingly technological future.
 
In Our Robots, Ourselves, David Mindell offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the cutting edge of robotics today, debunking commonly held myths and exploring the rapidly changing relationships between humans and machines.
 
Drawing on firsthand experience, extensive interviews, and the latest research from MIT and elsewhere, Mindell takes us to extreme environments—high atmosphere, deep ocean, and outer space—to reveal where the most advanced robotics already exist. In these environments, scientists use robots to discover new information about ancient civilizations, to map some of the world’s largest geological features, and even to “commute” to Mars to conduct daily experiments. But these tools of air, sea, and space also forecast the dangers, ethical quandaries, and unintended consequences of a future in which robotics and automation suffuse our everyday lives.
 
Mindell argues that the stark lines we’ve drawn between human and not human, manual and automated, aren’t helpful for understanding our relationship with robotics. Brilliantly researched and accessibly written, Our Robots, Ourselves clarifies misconceptions about the autonomous robot, offering instead a hopeful message about what he calls “rich human presence” at the center of the technological landscape we are now creating.  


From the Hardcover edition.
The technological marvel that facilitated the Apollo missions to the Moon was the on-board computer. In the 1960s most computers filled an entire room, but the spacecraft’s computer was required to be compact and low power. Although people today find it difficult to accept that it was possible to control a spacecraft using such a ‘primitive’ computer, it nevertheless had capabilities that are advanced even by today’s standards.

This is the first book to fully describe the Apollo guidance computer’s architecture, instruction format and programs used by the astronauts. As a comprehensive account, it will span the disciplines of computer science, electrical and aerospace engineering. However, it will also be accessible to the ‘space enthusiast’. In short, the intention is for this to be the definitive account of the Apollo guidance computer.

Frank O’Brien’s interest in the Apollo program began as a serious amateur historian. About 12 years ago, he began performing research and writing essays for the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, and the Apollo Flight Journal. Much of this work centered on his primary interests, the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) and the Lunar Module. These Journals are generally considered the canonical online reference on the flights to the Moon. He was then asked to assist the curatorial staff in the creation of the Cradle of Aviation Museum, on Long Island, New York, where he helped prepare the Lunar Module simulator, a LM procedure trainer and an Apollo space suit for display. He regularly lectures on the Apollo computer and related topics to diverse groups, from NASA's computer engineering conferences, the IEEE/ACM, computer festivals and university student groups.

People have been reading on computer screens for several decades now, predating popularization of personal computers and widespread use of the internet. But it was the rise of eReaders and tablets that caused digital reading to explode. In 2007, Amazon introduced its first Kindle. Three years later, Apple debuted the iPad. Meanwhile, as mobile phone technology improved and smartphones proliferated, the phone became another vital reading platform. In Words Onscreen, Naomi Baron, an expert on language and technology, explores how technology is reshaping our understanding of what it means to read. Digital reading is increasingly popular. Reading onscreen has many virtues, including convenience, potential cost-savings, and the opportunity to bring free access to books and other written materials to people around the world. Yet, Baron argues, the virtues of eReading are matched with drawbacks. Users are easily distracted by other temptations on their devices, multitasking is rampant, and screens coax us to skim rather than read in-depth. What is more, if the way we read is changing, so is the way we write. In response to changing reading habits, many authors and publishers are producing shorter works and ones that don't require reflection or close reading. In her tour through the new world of eReading, Baron weights the value of reading physical print versus online text, including the question of what long-standing benefits of reading might be lost if we go overwhelmingly digital. She also probes how the internet is shifting reading from being a solitary experience to a social one, and the reasons why eReading has taken off in some countries, especially the United States and United Kingdom, but not others, like France and Japan. Reaching past the hype on both sides of the discussion, Baron draws upon her own cross-cultural studies to offer a clear-eyed and balanced analysis of the ways technology is affecting the ways we read today--and what the future might bring.
Today, we associate the relationship between feedback, control, and computing with Norbert Wiener's 1948 formulation of cybernetics. But the theoretical and practical foundations for cybernetics, control engineering, and digital computing were laid earlier, between the two world wars. In Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing before Cybernetics, David A. Mindell shows how the modern sciences of systems emerged from disparate engineering cultures and their convergence during World War II.

Mindell examines four different arenas of control systems research in the United States between the world wars: naval fire control, the Sperry Gyroscope Company, the Bell Telephone Laboratories, and Vannevar Bush's laboratory at MIT. Each of these institutional sites had unique technical problems, organizational imperatives, and working environments, and each fostered a distinct engineering culture. Each also developed technologies to represent the world in a machine.

At the beginning of World War II, President Roosevelt established the National Defense Research Committee, one division of which was devoted to control systems. Mindell shows how the NDRC brought together representatives from the four pre-war engineering cultures, and how its projects synthesized conceptions of control, communications, and computing. By the time Wiener articulated his vision, these ideas were already suffusing through engineering. They would profoundly influence the digital world.

As a new way to conceptualize the history of computing, this book will be of great interest to historians of science, technology, and culture, as well as computer scientists and theorists. Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing before Cybernetics

Stung by the pioneering space successes of the Soviet Union - in particular, Gagarin being the first man in space, the United States gathered the best of its engineers and set itself the goal of reaching the Moon within a decade. In an expanding 2nd edition of How Apollo Flew to the Moon, David Woods tells the exciting story of how the resulting Apollo flights were conducted by following a virtual flight to the Moon and its exploration of the surface. From launch to splashdown, he hitches a ride in the incredible spaceships that took men to another world, exploring each step of the journey and detailing the enormous range of disciplines, techniques, and procedures the Apollo crews had to master. While describing the tremendous technological accomplishment involved, he adds the human dimension by calling on the testimony of the people who were there at the time. He provides a wealth of fascinating and accessible material: the role of the powerful Saturn V, the reasoning behind trajectories, the day-to-day concerns of human and spacecraft health between two worlds, the exploration of the lunar surface and the sheer daring involved in traveling to the Moon and the mid-twentieth century. Given the tremendous success of the original edition of How Apollo Flew to the Moon, the second edition will have a new chapter on surface activities, inspired by reader's comment on Amazon.com. There will also be additional detail in the existing chapters to incorporate all the feedback from the original edition, and will include larger illustrations.
Today, we associate the relationship between feedback, control, and computing with Norbert Wiener's 1948 formulation of cybernetics. But the theoretical and practical foundations for cybernetics, control engineering, and digital computing were laid earlier, between the two world wars. In Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing before Cybernetics, David A. Mindell shows how the modern sciences of systems emerged from disparate engineering cultures and their convergence during World War II.

Mindell examines four different arenas of control systems research in the United States between the world wars: naval fire control, the Sperry Gyroscope Company, the Bell Telephone Laboratories, and Vannevar Bush's laboratory at MIT. Each of these institutional sites had unique technical problems, organizational imperatives, and working environments, and each fostered a distinct engineering culture. Each also developed technologies to represent the world in a machine.

At the beginning of World War II, President Roosevelt established the National Defense Research Committee, one division of which was devoted to control systems. Mindell shows how the NDRC brought together representatives from the four pre-war engineering cultures, and how its projects synthesized conceptions of control, communications, and computing. By the time Wiener articulated his vision, these ideas were already suffusing through engineering. They would profoundly influence the digital world.

As a new way to conceptualize the history of computing, this book will be of great interest to historians of science, technology, and culture, as well as computer scientists and theorists. Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing before Cybernetics

“[An] essential book… it is required reading as we seriously engage one of the most important debates of our time.”—Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age

From drones to Mars rovers—an exploration of the most innovative use of robots today and a provocative argument for the crucial role of humans in our increasingly technological future.
 
In Our Robots, Ourselves, David Mindell offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the cutting edge of robotics today, debunking commonly held myths and exploring the rapidly changing relationships between humans and machines.
 
Drawing on firsthand experience, extensive interviews, and the latest research from MIT and elsewhere, Mindell takes us to extreme environments—high atmosphere, deep ocean, and outer space—to reveal where the most advanced robotics already exist. In these environments, scientists use robots to discover new information about ancient civilizations, to map some of the world’s largest geological features, and even to “commute” to Mars to conduct daily experiments. But these tools of air, sea, and space also forecast the dangers, ethical quandaries, and unintended consequences of a future in which robotics and automation suffuse our everyday lives.
 
Mindell argues that the stark lines we’ve drawn between human and not human, manual and automated, aren’t helpful for understanding our relationship with robotics. Brilliantly researched and accessibly written, Our Robots, Ourselves clarifies misconceptions about the autonomous robot, offering instead a hopeful message about what he calls “rich human presence” at the center of the technological landscape we are now creating.  


From the Hardcover edition.
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