Crafting a Human Role in Lunar Flight

Before Gemini or even Mercury missions flew, and before President Kennedy's decision to send Americans to the moon, Robert Chilton began looking at the human role in a lunar flight. Meeting the requirements for a moon mission would be hugely more difficult and complex than for the simple orbital strolls: hitting a lunar entry corridor required accurate navigation;maps of the moon had crude precision compared to those of earth;lunar reentry speeds far exceeded those from orbit;and people had to withstand much longer missions and perform at peak capacity up to the end.

''One of the biggest, toughest problems we had,'' Chilton reckoned, ''was to put the astronaut in the loop''—not just in the loop of a little ground-based tracking like Mercury, but in the loop of the complex guidance system that would be required for lunar flight.79 Because a spacecraft returning from the moon would reenter the atmosphere from a trans-earth trajectory at a much higher speed than Mercury or Gemini spacecraft had, it would need to target a narrow reentry corridor, which called for accurate guidance operating autonomously on board.

In the summer of 1960 NASA held an industry conference to define the moon landing project and let potential contractors know what to expect. They also announced a new name: Project Apollo. Chilton presented a ''command and control'' configuration for the pie-in-the-sky project. The crew for Apollo, Chilton told the audience, would assume a role ''comparable to the crew of a transcontinental jet airliner.'' This was not the mundane comparison it would be today, for 707s had only started flying these routes in 1958. Each airliner had a pilot, a copilot, and a flight engineer. Apollo, too, would have a three-man crew. Chilton did not mention a lunar landing.

Chilton predicted that Apollo would rely heavily on automation. Computers would relieve the pilots of routine tasks and assist them for those that required high speed, accuracy, or computational complexity. That did not mean, Chilton hastened to add, that the mission could be conducted with full automation. Unmanned flights might provide data for the development program, but ''specially instrumented vehicles'' should fly only suborbital routes as tests.

Chilton defined the primary crew tasks as making command decisions, monitoring the systems, and supervising navigation and control. Tasks also included ''maintaining] system performance by accomplishing the necessary maintenance and repair, or by engaging appropriate backup systems'' and emergency manual modes. If, as was argued for Mercury, the crew were the ultimate backup system, then it would seem only reasonable to ask them to fix the machines when they broke.80

Under ideal circumstances the flights would be relatively automated, but humans would get ''into the loop'' in an emergency—much as John Glenn had taken over control of his spacecraft when the thruster failed. Only later did Chilton recognize the problem with this approach: the astronauts had to train for numerous failure scenarios. That problem ''rose up and bit us,'' because the training of the crew became a major bottleneck in meeting the flight schedules. ''The training load on the crew was just so horrendous,'' Chilton recalled, ''that it paced the [Apollo] program after a while,'' because the crew were so busy training not only on the primary procedures, but on all the emergency procedures as well.81 Such problems lay far in the future when Chilton laid out the requirements for Apollo in 1960.

NASA then requested proposals from industry for several large-scale feasibility studies for the lunar mission. Goodyear Aircraft proposed to study the social structure of the crew and the ''man-machine variables that affected optimal balance between guaranteed mechanical reliability and need for operator activity and challenge.'' Only a thorough ''man-machine analysis'' would define the requirements for the crews, who might be younger than the Mercury astronauts. A Convair feasibility study identified the crew members as ''commander,'' ''subsystem operator,'' and ''scientific operator.'' The Boeing study argued that ''man's role must transcend that of a monitor of an automatic program,'' and proposed ''to enter man in the system loop,'' to allow the commander to ''look ahead'' and select optimum solutions before committing to a course of action. A McDonnell study divided the three crew member's tasks into systems management, flight control, and navigation. Vought aircraft divided them into ''Pilot-Vehicle commander, Navigator-Second Pilot, and Flight Engineer-Maintenance-Scientific Observer,'' and articulated a philosophy of the crew in direct command of all vehicle control loops during all phases of flight.82

The Apollo feasibility studies implicitly questioned the assertion that all astronauts had to be trained pilots, positing roles for flight engineers, systems managers, and scientists. Reflecting on this early, formative period, Michael Collins and others believed that Apollo did not adequately incorporate the lessons of Gemini. Stated Collins, ''When Gemini methods were suggested to Apollo engineers, there was no eagerness to accept or even to listen.''83 A simple explanation attributes this disconnect to the parallel schedules of the two programs. A subtler analysis notes that, despite the common role of Robert Chilton, from its beginning Apollo developed its own vision of the human role, one augmented by and dependent on machines. By the time Gemini flew for the first time, Apollo engineers had already designed the astronauts into a rich, flexible system for flying to the moon, one organized around a digital computer.

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