Automation in the Soviet Space Program

Astronauts liked Gemini's pilot-centered philosophy. For them, it was not only solid engineering but also an expression of national character. ''During a mission we were independent thinkers and decision makers,'' wrote Walter Cunningham, who flew on Apollo 7. ''It was the American way of life carried into one more challenging environment.'' By contrast, Cunningham believed, the Soviets would over-automate their spacecraft, and ''never fully trusted the individual as opposed to the 'collective' on the ground.'' This difference of approach, Cunningham and many others felt, was responsible for the Soviets losing their lead in space in the 1960s.70

The Soviet approach to spacecraft automation did differ from the American approach, but not in the ways most people thought. Like their American counterparts, cosmonauts were public symbols and served political goals. When crafting their roles, the Soviet regime drew on twentieth-century images of machine-men and scientific organization of labor, including Stalinist iconography of aviation and piloting. In the 1960s, cosmonauts became the ideal of ''New Soviet Man,'' a cog in the larger machine of state, taking individual initiative within heavily proscribed constraints of ideology and authority.71

But the ideal did not translate into technical systems in any straightforward way. Lt. Gen. Nikolai Kamanin, who headed cosmonaut selection and training, described his approach as ''the domination of automata.'' Early cosmonauts were not accomplished test pilots but junior fighter pilots—Yuri Gagarin had a mere 230 hours of flight time when he was selected. The first manned Soviet spacecraft, Vostok, was, like Mercury, heavily automated and first flown unmanned (most Soviet rockets and spacecraft flew two unmanned missions before being human-qualified). But Vostok did not offer the range of backup manual modes that Mercury offered. Yuri Gagarin, in fact, was blocked from using the manual reentry function on his spacecraft by a combination lock. In the event of an emergency, the ground controllers planned to read him the combination over radio (although after some debate it was placed in a sealed envelope on board).

Why were Soviet spacecraft automated to this degree? Fully automated spacecraft had ''dual use,'' and could be used for remote as well as manned missions. Additionally, the heavier payload of Soviet rockets could afford the weight of extra electronics. Engineering culture also played a part: Soviet engineers tended to have rocketry backgrounds, fewer of them had roots in aviation. Historian Slava Gerovitch, one of the few who has examined the question from primary sources, points out that ''heated debates over the division of function between human and machine often broke out within the space engineering community.'' As in the United States, professional interests, organizational politics, and national ideology all influenced the debate. Spacecraft design was organizationally separated from cosmonaut selection and training, so the cosmonauts had little input into development and the engineers were not familiar with their points of view.72

Soviet engineers discussed humans in cybernetic terms, evaluating their abilities for logical switching, amplification, integration, and computing. Indeed they avoided the term ''pilot'' in favor of ''spacecraft guidance operator.'' Tensions arose between military and civilian astronauts, between those trained as pilots and engineers or scientists (once two astronauts debating the subject nearly came to blows while in orbit). Legendary designer Sergei Korolev saw the humans as integral parts of larger technological systems, with which they would trade control and authority.73

As in the American program, the cosmonauts fought for active roles in their flights, arguing they would increase reliability and the likelihood of mission success. The Soviets began developing automatic rendezvous and docking systems in the mid-1960s, with good results, but when they failed the cosmonauts had trouble intervening at the last minute. As in the American case, the planned Soviet lunar spacecraft included a digital computer with the operators typing in commands to be executed by its programs. ''The Soviet approach to automation was never fixed,'' Gerovitch concludes, and ''it evolved over time, from the fully automated equipment of Vostok to the semi-automatic analog control loops of Soyuz,'' to later digital controls. ''The role of the cosmonauts also changed, from the equipment monitor and back-up on Vostok to the versatile technician on Soyuz to a systems integrator on later missions.''74

American engineers and astronauts, while well aware of their competition with the Soviets during the 1960s, had little detailed knowledge of their technology, much the less the designs of their control systems. Nonetheless, the counterpoint served as an enabling myth. Imagining Soviet technology as fully automated in a totalitarian mode supported the American association of active pilot control with the democratic individual, and the astronauts as ''New American Men,'' full of initiative, freedom, and skill at the controls of their free-flying spacecraft. Ironically, on Apollo only advances in electronics and computers would allow American engineers to build control systems to suit this ideal human role.

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