Human Machine and the Future of Spaceflight

For a while I was afraid that Apollo might be one of the last battlefields on which the human race took up arms against machines. Catch phrases such as ''man in the loop,'' ''man out of the loop,'' the middle ground of ''man across the loop'' and, I suppose, even man just ''looped'' have purported to represent the proper solution to one of the more subtle system problems facing the program____From this point of view, the terms ''manual'' and ''automatic'' carry more emotional than technical content.

—Joe Shea, deputy director of Manned Space Flight (Systems), NASA

In 1963 Joe Shea addressed the second Manned Space Flight Meeting of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). He explained the ''systems view'' that had originated in Bell Telephone Laboratories and in the U.S. Air Force's ballistic missile programs and was now pervading NASA's upper administration. As the paramount example of this philosophy, Shea offered NASA's approach to the human-machine relationship, ''one area in danger of being overwhelmed by dogma.'' Systems engineering, he argued, could help engineers move beyond that dogma.1

Shea granted that both humans and machines had critical roles to play in space missions. While human pilots could control docking, ''selection of the landing site from the hover point and, perhaps, lunar touchdown,'' their most important function would be monitoring systems and selecting alternate modes in case the systems failed; hence his evaluation of the ''emotional'' nature of the manual versus automatic dichotomy. To call a control manual, when the output of an inertial platform is sent through a digital computer and then displayed to a human who operates a hand controller also connected to that computer, ''is stretching things a bit''; under these conditions, the distinction between humans ''in'' or ''out'' of the loop, Shea concluded, became primarily one of ''semantics.''

Shea presciently recognized how traditional understandings of ''automatic'' and ''manual'' no longer applied in the world of programmable, digital systems. Traditional social roles of the operators would change as well (what the IL's Jim Nevins called ''a transition in the art of piloting''). Moreover, Shea speculated on the broader implications of these changes, leading some to see the Apollo program as a ''battlefield,'' on which humans fought for their cause against the encroachment of machines. Shea's speech to the AIAA came early in 1963, when he was still at NASA headquarters, months before he would head to Houston and bring his approach to bear on its pilot-oriented culture, years before Apollo hardware actually flew or men landed on the moon. Nonetheless, he asked questions about the relationships between systems approaches and pilot-oriented design that played out in Apollo, from Apollo 11's program alarms to Apollo 17's professional explorations.

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