Black Boxes and Gray Matter

In 1962 President Kennedy presented the Collier Trophy, the highest award in aviation, to X-15 pilots Crossfield, Peterson, Walker, and White. The award marked the end of the first phase of the program, when a number of the original research questions had largely been answered. This official pronouncement of success, from the highest levels, credited the project's pilots more than its engineers. The initial doubts about the feasibility of humans in the loop for spaceflight research, raised in private by Kelly Johnson, seemed to have been put to rest. But they persisted, for we find supporters of the X-15 constantly justifying themselves.

X-15 publications, from technical papers to statistical analyses and breathless PR, consistently emphasized the role of the human. Neil Armstrong was typical when he published his conclusion that ''electronic equipment figures prominently in the X-15 flight and ground systems, but this hypersonic vehicle is an instrument of the pilot, depending on him for control and flight success____The vehicle is controlled exclusively by the pilot in the conventional fashion.''43

''How well do black boxes replace grey matter?'' asked a speaker at an air force science and engineering symposium in 1962. The speaker was reporting on a comprehensive study of all X-15 flights up through January of that year to quantify what impact the human pilots had on the program. The study considered what would have happened were a ''relatively simple automatic guidance and control system [installed] in place of the pilot.'' It found that numerous incidents during X-15 flights required the flexibility of the human in the cockpit. The study's conclusion: ''the program would not have been very successful without both the pilot and redundant/emergency systems.''

If the X-15 lacked either pilots or emergency backups, the report stated, then all three research aircraft would have been lost after an average of five flights. The study compared the X-15 to the BOMARC missile, which failed on more than half of its missions. If a man were in the loop of the BOMARC, the study argued, then it would achieve 97 percent mission success—about equivalent to the X-15's 96 percent. An extensive statistical study of the X-15 missions showed that the rate of success would have been considerably lower were it not for the human presence in the cockpit, about equal to the BOMARC's 43 percent success rate.44

Written with a statistical bent and rigor that seemed immune from the passions surrounding humans in the cockpit, the X-15 report explicitly addressed the ongoing debates over manned spaceflight. The air force's director of flight testing coauthored the foreword to the report, noting that ''The X-15 program, because of its currency and similarities to the next generation of aerospace projects, provides a quantitative insight into the relative merits of piloted versus unmanned space vehicles.''45

Yet the study proved deeply conservative about technology. It contained no deep consideration of digital computing or any discussion of remote controls from the ground, two technologies that would help make Apollo's pilots successful. Rather, the X-15 report compared human actors only to ''a relatively simple and reliable 1958-59 state-of-the-art guidance and control system in place of the pilot.'' The justification was that any more complex automation would have its own failure rates that would have to be considered, complicating the problem. Improvements in reliability for automated systems, of the kind that would occur in the following decade, were not considered. Nor were the implications of applying to remote systems the meticulous, high-quality engineering routinely devoted to manned systems. The debate was framed as one between skilled pilots and mindless, unreliable automata. Despite its limitations, the X-15 report was frequently cited in later years as quantitative support for the human pilot in space.

Not only technical publications supported the human role in the X-15. A 1962 Hollywood movie, titled simply X-15, starred Charles Bronson and Mary Tyler Moore and repeated the official story. The air force contributed wonderful color footage to the film, reviewed the script, and asked the producers to ensure they gave adequate credit to the skill of the pilots.46

The film opens with a dramatic launch sequence narrated by actor and pilot (and Air Force Reserve General) Jimmy Stewart. ''Some believe that the guided missile and electronically controlled missiles,'' Stewart begins, ''are the ultimate answers to space flight.'' Released after John Glenn's orbital Mercury flight, the film promoted the X-15 as an advance over Mercury. ''Man will never be satisfied sitting in a nosecone, acting as a biological specimen,'' Stewart continued. ''Now the X-15 is ready, manned by a pilot who will make all the decisions for accurate control in flight, and reentry, and recovery.'' The script continually touts the technical skill and emotional stability of the pilots and the X-15's superiority over the Mercury capsule. ''The X-15 pilot will be able to choose his angle of reentry, and control his speed and altitude and glide to his landing area,'' the chief engineer tells the press, ''always under the pilot control. He has a choice.''47

In 1964, on the tenth anniversary of the inception of the X-15 program, NASA compiled a summary of its research results. Where Mercury was a test of a human's ability to function well in space, ''the X-15 was demonstrating man's ability to control a highperformance vehicle in a near-space environment.'' By this time Mercury was flying, Gemini was well on its way, Apollo was well defined, and ''certainly the problem of launching the lunar-excursion module from the surface of the Moon through the sole efforts of its two-man crew must appear more practical and feasible in the light of repeated launchings of the X-15,'' with just the pilot and the B-52 crew to prepare for launch.48

An entire chapter of the research results volume was devoted to ''man-machine integration.'' Here, the authors tackled the human versus machine question head on:

The X-15 program alone cannot disprove the merits of unmanned vehicles, since it contributes to only one side of the argument. Nor, on the other hand, does it glorify the role of the pilot, for it was only through the use of automatic controls for some operations that the full potential of the X-15 was utilized. Rather, the real significance of its excellent mission reliability is that it has shown that the basic philosophy of classical, piloted aircraft operation is just as applicable to the realm of hypersonic and space flight as it is to supersonic flight. That philosophy decrees that the pilot is indispensable, and that he must be able to override any automatic control, bringing his skill and training to bear upon deficiencies of machinery.49

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