From the High Desert

Meanwhile, amid flight programs and international competition, lunar plans germinated. As von Braun had realized, opposing views aligned not simply by professions (engineers versus pilots), but by institutions and engineering cultures. Among the earliest to play their cards were researchers at NASA's high-speed flight station (also known as the Flight Research Center, or FRC) at Edwards, the high temple of flight test, who sought to ensure that their pilot-centered culture had a place in the budding lunar program for every phase of flight. In 1960, when the program was just taking shape, FRC Director Paul Bikle wrote to NASA headquarters of the ''spectacular competence'' of the FRC in flight research that could be brought to bear on a lunar program. Citing their work on piloted boost, he proposed to study the role of the pilot in a Saturn launch and to examine the pilot's role in stabilizing a spacecraft in orbit. Bikle argued that automation should be included only when ''the particular task is not within the pilot's capabilities.'' Similarly, for reentry, ''the role of the pilot as an active participant for control of the vehicle to a precise landing point should be studied, to determine the degree of automaticity (if any) required.''75

Milt Thompson and colleagues argued that the pilots' alert senses—feeling vibrations, hearing tanks pressurizing, smelling smoke—could not be easily replaced by machines.76

Test pilots Joe Walker and John McKay argued that the problem with Mercury was that the rockets had been designed for automatic operation and then modified to include a pilot as a monitor. This afterthought, they believed, ''compromises both the automatic system and the pilot.'' Rather, they advocated ''inclusion of the pilot in the control loop at all times'' so the pilot could swiftly take corrective action, using his feel for the system obtained in normal flight.77

FRC engineer Hubert Drake framed the pilots' role in rendezvous while articulating the FRC's position on some general principles. He began with a series of axioms:

■ Design vehicle and mission to rely on pilot

■ All flights piloted

■ No unmanned mission capability

■ Avoid excessive safety emphasis

■ Concentrate development on few systems

Furthermore, rendezvous would be no big deal: ''the pilot comments indicated that the rendezvous maneuver was comparable to docking a boat or parking a car,'' he stated (a view that contrasted with that of the Gemini astronauts, who emphasized the difficulty and the skill required). In sum, Drake reported the FRC's position: ''He [the pilot] should be in complete, direct control and able to use this control in the most flexible manner possible by the use of his own intelligence, senses, and manual skills. Any artificial aids provided should be designed solely to assist him and should not have primary control during any part of the operation.''78

Even at this early date, the FRC's approach of ''complete, direct control'' by the pilot represented an extreme view, and had already been superseded for Mercury by Robert Chilton's philosophy of including the pilot as a backup system.

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