MIT as a System Integrator

For the first couple of years the Apollo project was largely undefined, the money flowed freely, and the nerve-wracking deadlines seemed far in the future. IL engineers remembered a loose, creative time. ''NASA was very thin,'' one IL member recalled, ''they were busy with other things, so we didn't have a lot of direction. They gave us a lot of rope.'' This was the period when Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo were all running in parallel, and the Space Task Group was in the process of relocating to Houston. A young engineer named Aaron Cohen began to manage the guidance and navigation project for NASA;he led a guidance and control panel that had weekly meetings with representatives from Ames, Langley, and the spacecraft contractors. At these conferences, remembered IL engineer Dan Lickly, ''You told what you were doing, you got a lot of criticism, you had comments. And then you went back and looked at it, studied it, put together something, came back in another month.''60

Nevertheless, Apollo was growing into a large project and changing fast. The MIT engineers soon had to contend with other groups who were also beginning to work on the system. In November 1961 NASA granted a contract for the command and service modules to North American Aviation—the same group that had built the X-15. The following summer, after the LOR issue was settled, they contracted with Grumman to build the LM. The IL role was initially limited to a guidance system—to answer the question ''where am I?'' rather than a control system to allow the pilots to move or orient the spacecraft. Under the North American contract, Minneapolis-Honeywell Regulator Company would build a stabilization and control system for the spacecraft (analogous to the one in Gemini), which would actually allow the astronauts to fly. The IL engineers would have to cooperate, if not to compete, with these other systems and contractors.

In addition to LOR, the Apollo guidance system continued to expand throughout 1962 as the technical nature of the system came into focus. The Saturn rocket had its own guidance, but at one point NASA briefly added a requirement that the IL system should be able to back it up (it was eventually able to back up the Saturn guidance, but only after the first Saturn stage separated). Also because of LOR, the IL system had to work within two separate spacecraft—the CM and the LM, and the IL team now had to contend with two separate contractors—North American and Grumman. North American was generally unhappy with LOR, as it meant that their machine would not land on the moon at all. IL engineers visited North American to begin talking about integrating the computer into the craft, and they were given a nice, round number for the volume it could occupy—one cubic foot.

Furthermore, North American and Grumman were both reluctant to let go of the responsibility for guidance of their vehicles. ''They [the two prime contractors] were really trying to understand how to design a guidance system,'' Aaron Cohen recalled, ''which we really didn't need. We really needed for them to understand what were their requirements for interface''—classic systems engineering language, which focuses on relationships between organizations and components.

Both companies wanted to define a guidance system that MIT would then build for them. The contractors were used to the air force or the navy which specified the system and let them do their thing. NASA was much more involved in the details, treating the contractors more like hired fabricators than design houses, a position hard for the contractors to accept. ''They felt they should have overall cognizance of the guidance system,'' Cohen said.61

The IL, too, saw itself as more than a designer of somebody else's machines. Trageser wanted complete responsibility for the guidance system, right down to installing it in the vehicle and ensuring it would work. Grumman engineers, by contrast, considered themselves not simply the designer of the ''airframe,'' but the systems integrator. If they were going to put the Grumman name on the spacecraft, then they'd do all the testing and ensure the guidance system was compatible and deliver to NASA a complete, working unit.

Joe Gavin, an MIT graduate, managed the project as a Grumman vice president. For years, the genial, soft-spoken Gavin had built fighter jets at Grumman under contracts traditional in the aviation industry. ''Now, we had the feeling,'' Gavin remembered about the early days of Apollo, ''that NASA thought they were hiring a job shop to carry out their design of a LM. We very clearly understood my god, we were going to design and build a LM that we had our name on, and we would argue every inch of the way, and we did argue every inch of the way ...we quickly became known as difficult.''62

Nor were the two contractors the same—IL engineers remembered the ''arrogance'' of Grumman—a very tough, technically competent outfit that gave them a difficult time—versus the ''pussycat'' of North American, a less experienced group (with many recently hired young engineers) more easily intimidated by the technical firepower of MIT. In Davey Hoag's words, ''it seemed to me that I could walk all over them [North

American]. I had to tell them the questions they should be asking me, and what did they really need to know so they could design their side to the guidance side.'' Whereas at Grumman, he said, ''they had a sharp team. I met my mettle there... I enjoyed that part of the stuff, but it was a struggle.''63

Eldon Hall remembered ''there were these two giants [North American and Grumman] beating us over the head from both sides. . . . It was just completely impossible to work with the two.'' Finally, in January 1963 NASA decreed there would be a single, common guidance computer, and it would be copied, nearly identically, in both spacecraft. This decision kept the work at the IL to a reasonable level, and consciously or not, added a level of redundancy to the system. Indeed, having a second identical guidance computer in the LM would do much to save the lives of the astronauts on Apollo 13.

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