Last Minute Switchings

In May 1961, a year and a half after the X-15's first flight, Alan Shepard became the first American to fly in space. He flew not in a rocket plane but atop a Redstone ballistic missile. Public response to Mercury quickly overshadowed the X-15, and missiles superseded aircraft as the first stage of human delivery into space. But the human role was far from settled. As Joachim Kuettner, a former test pilot and member of Wernher von Braun's engineering team, described above, human spaceflight in the United States required merging two technologies.1 Each had developed an engineering culture of shared assumptions, approaches, and techniques. Pilots and flight test engineers envisioned astronauts as active controllers rather than passive cargo, guiding powerful rockets into free spaceflight. Rocket and missile engineers, by contrast, guided their vehicles with automatic feedback controls to transport astronauts from launch to orbit. Both Project Mercury (six manned flights, May 1961-May 1963) and its successor Gemini (ten manned flights, March 1965-November 1966) brought these cultures together, advancing but not resolving their divergent notions of human control in space. The merger, neither smooth nor preordained, discarded promising ideas, closely held beliefs, and envisioned identities.

Human spaceflight evolved in the 1960s into something quite different from how it was initially imagined. Rather than piloting rockets and hypersonic spaceplanes, astronauts found themselves enclosed in capsules aboard automated rockets. Nevertheless, NASA found roles for human operators that allowed them to ''fly'' their craft in new, unexpected ways. Pilots took on new roles as systems monitors, backup systems, and computer operators in novel operations like rendezvous and docking. As in the X-15, enabling these new tasks were electronic controls and computers. As engineers outlined early ideas for lunar flights, they drew on these earlier experiences and added still newer computer technologies. Apollo systems engineer Joe Shea called Apollo a ''balanced'' program: ''balancing the history of missile technology and the history of aircraft technology. You'll note that the system is neither all man nor all machine. Man is in effect a sub system.''2 Whether human beings would be subsystems, commanders, or pilots to the moon depended on how Apollo engineers designed their systems.

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