Braincase on the tip of a firecracker Apollo Guidance

It was a curious ship, a braincase on the tip of a firecracker____Without fire it could not move;

without electricity it could not think. —Norman Mailer, Of a Fire on the Moon

In this guidance and navigation business, we're kind of one down in the dramatic art. We have to compete with people who build engines and make lots of smoke and flame... in the computer area, we don't even have any moving parts. We have some small flashing lights . . . and that's about as dramatic as we get.

—Ralph Ragan, Raytheon Company, Apollo Project Operations Manager

When John F. Kennedy took office in January 1961, human spaceflight did not appear on his political radar screen. Kennedy's science advisors believed that emphasizing human flights would overshadow the country's strengths in space science. They recommended the president distance his administration from Mercury, an expensive and potentially dangerous holdover from the Eisenhower administration that had received a great deal of attention but had not yet flown with a human aboard. NASA had been working on a lunar program for two years, as a technical extension of earth-orbital work, holding industry conferences and letting study contracts, but the political support and massive funding required for such an endeavor remained uncertain at best.

Other members of the new administration, however, understood that human spaceflight could only be justified within a larger context than scientific or technical imperatives alone. NASA administrator James Webb and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara argued that ''these [space policy] decisions can and should not be made purely on the basis of technical matters,'' and rather pointed to the ''social objectives'' of human spaceflight, arguing that ''it is man, not merely machines, in space that captures the imagination of the world.''1

When the USSR put Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit that April, apparently securing second-place status for the United States in space for years to come, the president's mind began to change. ''Is there any other space program,'' Kennedy asked Vice President Lyndon Johnson, ''which offers dramatic results in which we could win?''2 After consulting Webb, McNamara, von Braun, and other technical advisors, Johnson recommended a program to achieve a manned lunar landing by 1966 or 1967, citing the ''margin of control over space and over men's minds through space accomplishments.'' Alan Shepard flew on May 5, 1961, and the overflowing public response persuaded Kennedy to make the bold move of committing the nation to landing a man on the moon ''before this decade is out.'' Congress soon granted his request for financial support.3 Project Apollo was underway, its political (i.e., financial) support secured by the public impact of a human in space.

NASA engineers had been studying and planning, but now had money to spend and systems to build. Just two months after Kennedy's speech, NASA let its first contract for Apollo. It would not go McDonnell Douglas, which had built the Mercury spacecraft, or to Minneapolis Honeywell, which had built Mercury's control system. Neither would the Apollo guidance system be made by North American Aviation, which would manufacture the spacecraft itself, nor by Grumman, which would make the lunar lander. These contracts were still in the future, the companies still jostling for selection, when Robert Chilton decided to get started.

In fact, the contract for Apollo's navigation and control system, the first in the entire program, would not go to a company at all but to a university: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT's Instrumentation Laboratory (IL) had developed the ''instruments'' that helped make flying ''scientific'' during the twentieth century and had trained the NACA engineers in flight controls. This lab had built a national reputation with innovative inertial guidance systems for missiles, and its engineers had recently begun envisioning an unmanned probe for navigating to Mars. Following Kennedy's imperative, IL would now incorporate human users into its precise guidance schemes.

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