Sources and Implications

How did the Apollo engineers accommodate human beings in their machines? How did they build a computer that kept humans ''in the loop'' for the critical functions of the lunar landing? When were the human operators operating as skilled, intelligent beings, and when were they machine-like, following prescribed scripts? This borderline, between human and machine, reveals the human aspects of Apollo amid so many seemingly cold, technical calculations.

Much, if not all, of the engineering work was incredibly mundane: writing reports, holding meetings, testing machines, developing procedures, practicing pushing buttons, weaving hair-like wires through tiny magnetic cores thousands of times in mind-numbing succession. Human players interacted in ordinary ways: competition, collaboration, professional pride and anxiety, struggles to influence and define the project. Sources prove even more prosaic: project updates, status reports, interoffice memos, engineering drawings, test reports, logs of an astronaut's seemingly endless hours in a simulator, dry mission transcripts, technical debriefs, and mission reports. As participants often pointed out, the high abstractions of systems engineering frequently meant added layers of paperwork bureaucracy. Yet lurking within these ordinary documents are critical tensions and embedded assumptions whose explication makes the detail come alive.

One of my goals is to explain, really explain, how Apollo worked, and to make one of the most difficult engineering accomplishments of the twentieth century accessible and understandable. The story combines the intrigue and suspense of a group of engineers working at the cutting edge of technology with the drama and interest of spaceflight and the social importance of computers. Tracy Kidder's 1981 book about a group of engineers building a computer, The Soul of a New Machine, had the ironic result that the computer he focused on, a minor commercial machine, was forgotten, while his book is long remembered. This story has a similar cast of characters but in this case the computer and its task made history.

I hope that the interested, nontechnical reader will gain from this story insight and intuition into the thorny and fascinating engineering problem of how to fly to the moon, particularly how to land on its surface, and some understanding of the funda mental questions of machine control and human-machine interaction. These reappear in high-risk, high-reward technologies of today, from airline operations to nuclear power plants to proposals for a new era of space exploration.

A few words on what this book is not. It is not a reminiscence of NASA's glory days of Apollo, and it does not seek to explain what went wrong at NASA in the three decades since.24 It does not repeat the numerous cliches of ''we went to the moon with a computer that was less capable than a pocket calculator.'' That may be true if you measure a computer's capability in memory capacity or machine cycles alone. But if you consider interconnections, reliability, ruggedness, and documentation, the Apollo guidance computer is at least as impressive as the PC on your desktop, and the Apollo software an equally intricate ballet of many people's work and ideas.

Members of a video-game generation may find that Apollo makes sense when explained through stories of joysticks, cockpit displays, and hand-eye coordination. Indeed, the word cyborg was coined by NASA researchers studying bioastronautics in the 1950s.25 The earliest video games appeared during the Apollo years, one of which was called ''Lunar Lander'' (with instructions that read: ''You are landing on the moon and have taken over manual control 500 feet above a good landing spot...''). In the climactic moment of George Lucas's 1977 film Star Wars, the hero Luke Skywalker turns off his computerized sighting device and relies on the intuitive ''Force'' to help him destroy the enemy Death Star.

Still, I also do not contend that Apollo caused changes in human-machine relationships or that it created new technologies that altered those relationships. My argument is that Apollo exemplified broad changes in human-machine relationships, not that it caused them.

Telescopes Mastery

Telescopes Mastery

Through this ebook, you are going to learn what you will need to know all about the telescopes that can provide a fun and rewarding hobby for you and your family!

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment