From Piloted Boosters to Digital Aids

Wernher von Braun began the space age by excluding human pilots from the boost phase of flight. What had seemed the ultimate pilot's task, skillfully guiding a powerful rocket along a precise trajectory, became relegated to servos, automatic control loops, and eventually computers. Conflicts over human roles in spaceflight reflected the lastminute switchings between the cultures of missile and aircraft engineering;one eliminated and one celebrated the human pilot. Such tensions between engineering cultures, and between engineers and operators, continued to arise as Mercury astronauts vied with automatic systems and ground systems for control of their machines. Mercury's machinery remained in primary control, but technical failures (which were numerous) called for the pilots' skills. These ''ultimate backup systems'' proved their worth by getting themselves home. NASA publicity, Life's hagiography, and general press coverage continually told stories of human triumph in the face of technological failure.

Gemini put Mercury's publicity into engineering action, as rendezvous became the new realm of human piloting in space. Gemini astronauts recast Mercury as mere trials to demonstrate its abilities for control in space. Orbital changes and rendezvous and docking maneuvers were now the frontiers of human performance. Yet a pilot's intuition proved inadequate for rendezvous, and the problem was only solved with a variety of mechanical aids, from graphical charts to digital computers. Nonetheless, graceful meetings of two human-occupied spacecraft in orbit extended the beauty and control of flight into the orbital realm. All seemed to contrast with the archrival Soviet program that supposedly overautomated its spacecraft to the point of disallowing human intuition and skill.

As Project Apollo germinated, it sought to extend the Gemini experience to another planetary body. But the steep learning curve also extended the utility of automation. People seemed to be necessary for the flights, but what kinds of people? Pilots, engineers, or scientists? More realistically, what mix of the three? Early studies based on terrestrial models suggested crew structures in which technical experts would chauffeur a scientist-observer on a lunar expedition.

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