Pilot Skills and Backup Systems

Apollo 14's mission report recounted the events of the descent to justify human presence: ''The advantages of manned spaceflight were again clearly demonstrated on this mission by the crew's ability to diagnose and work around hardware problems and malfunctions which otherwise might have resulted in mission termination.''

Similarly, the Boston Globe reported, ''Because of the computer problem, Shepard took over manual control of the landing craft.''43 The Apollo 14 crew had experienced a systems problem. First, an ordinary mechanical failure, caused by contamination of the abort button, had necessitated a computer workaround. For all the difficulty in software development, and the complexity introduced by the digital computer, in this case it had saved the day—few other control systems could have been flexible enough to route around at the last minute. The work of solving the problem was offloaded from the crew in the LM to the NASA ground controllers, and then yet again to the IL programmers in Cambridge. When they did come up with a fix, they were able to test and verify it on the ground, all while the crew members were busy with other tasks. A triumph of human problem solving in space? Or of the crews on the ground?

After the clever solution to the abort button dilemma, the system presented another problem, the landing radar. Even many years later, the crew thought that the two were somehow related. ''As is often the case,'' Mitchell wrote in his memoir, ''errors in a system tend to propagate.''44 The landing radar failed to lock on to the ground because it had tripped into the wrong mode setting, likely the result of some noise in the system and unrelated to the computer or the abort system. The astronauts believed the system was acting up, that their changes to the computer and procedures had somehow induced a problem elsewhere.

When Shepard retold the story afterward, he described it as his own struggle against the balky equipment, against the stultifying mission rules, ''rebelling against the glitches and all this crap about wiring and circuitry screwing up.'' He recalled telling his partner, ''Ed, if the radar doesn't kick in, we're going to turn her over and fly her down.''

Of course, the radar did kick in, and Shepard's memoir describes his landing as the triumph of his manual skill: ''Using thirty years of pilot skills, threaded a needle between the hills and ridges along their approach path and dropped his ship down into a narrow valley, craters and boulders everywhere.''45 After landing, the book says Mitchell asked him ''Would you really have flown us down without the radar?'' The book reports Shepard's answer: ''The Tom Sawyer grin was never so wide on Alan's face: 'You'll never Know, Ed. You'll never know.' ''46 (None of the recordings, air to ground, or within the LM, or the technical debriefs afterward, recorded such a conversation. Ed Mitchell does not recall it either.)

Flight director Gene Kranz, in his memoir Failure Is Not an Option, recalled that She-pard had confided later to Flight Director Gerry Griffin, '' 'I had come too far to abandon the Moon. I would have continued the approach even without the radar.''' Kranz did not doubt that Shepard was serious, but also was sure he would have had to abort, because he would not have known his altitude accurately and, as Kranz noted, ''The fuel budget was just too tight.''47 Whether Shepard or any other astronaut could have landed without the radar data will never be known, but the systems problem on Apollo 14 once again stressed the interactions between humans and machine, and among the pilots, ground controllers, and engineers. In the later flights, these relationships would mature and evolve.

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