Autonomy and Accuracy

During the 1930s, when Charles Stark Draper became interested in aircraft instruments and developed the field he called ''instrument engineering'' to advance the technology, he also developed an institution. Its very name, the Instrumentation Laboratory, emphasized the scientific nature of the work. NASA officials always referred to the IL simply as MIT, ignoring the complex relationship between the lab and the university. Soon after Apollo, the IL was no longer even part of MIT, having been spun off in the early 1970s in response to student protests' against its weapons work. Today the lab is an independent center known as Charles Stark Draper Laboratories.

Working in close contact with the armed services and companies like Sperry Gyroscope, the engineers in Draper's lab fostered the ''scientific'' attitude toward flying pioneered by MIT graduate Jimmy Doolittle in his early instrument flight of 1929. The IL developed a specialty of building instruments based on spinning gyroscopes, and became a center of what sociologist Donald MacKenzie called the ''gyro culture''—a group of individuals, techniques, and institutions experienced in the art of applying gyroscopes to control vehicles.4

During World War II, Draper developed a gunsight, based on his gyroscopic turn indicators for aircraft, which could be deployed cheaply and quickly to help defend navy ships against close-proximity attacks. Sperry Gyroscope manufactured what became known as the ''Sperry-Draper Mark 14 Sight'' and produced 85,000 of them during the course of the war. Draper's industrial contact at Sperry Gyroscope was a young vice president, a rising aviation lawyer named James Webb. Twenty years later, as NASA administrator, Webb again relied on his old friend from MIT to build him gyroscopes for Apollo.5 Robert Seamans, Jr., who would become NASA's top technical manager during much of the 1960s, worked on these projects as a young engineer in Draper's group. Seamans titled his memoirs Aiming at Targets because with his background, hitting the moon with a spacecraft seemed a similar problem to hitting an aircraft with a shell.6

During the 1950s Draper and his group continued to work with gyroscopes and control systems, while developing the critical technology of inertial guidance. An inertial navigation system used highly precise gyroscopes and accelerometers to keep track of all the forces acting on a moving body;it could navigate ballistic missiles through space to precise targets in the Soviet Union, with no outside references and hence no possibility of jamming. By the end of the 1950s, IL-designed inertial systems were in the Polaris and Thor missiles, in addition to a variety of ships and aircraft.7

A question arose, leading to what one of the IL's principals called ''the beginning of a philosophic controversy''—should all navigation in space be self-contained, or aided with radio communications from earth?8 Again, the lines formed around professional cultures: advocates for external navigation tended to be electrical-radio engineers, whereas the inertial advocates stemmed from mechanical engineers piqued with the interest of making super-precise gyroscopes.9 The air force's first ICBM, the Atlas missile, was guided by a combination of inertial systems and radio beams.

As Donald MacKenzie pointed out, gyro culture developed two technological values by which IL engineers measured their success: autonomy, or the ability to navigate without external reference, and accuracy, the ability to navigate to precise points. Both derived from military requirements for ballistic missiles, by what was technologically interesting and achievable, and by the local culture in the IL. Both would dominate the engineers' thinking on Apollo, and both would come into question during the course of the program.

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