The Two Headed Monster

In August 1959, in the ''Satellite Room'' of the Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica, California, von Braun addressed a special dinner meeting of the SETP. The audience of more than fifty all-star pilots included Scott Crossfield, fresh from his first X-15 flight, and Harrison Storms, North American's star engineer-manager.

The renowned German rocket engineer was a former Nazi and S.S. member, but perhaps worse for the U.S. Air Force and NASA test pilots, he was working for the army. Where the X-15 was providing challenging tasks for pilots on reentry, von Braun's group focused on the critical problem of boosting payloads into space. As director of development for the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, von Braun spoke about new conflicts between missile engineers and pilots. He would articulate a powerful vision of the human role in future spaceflights that the pilots would find impossible to defeat.

Von Braun began his speech by acknowledging that the pilots saw him and the army as the ''two-headed monster who... is trying to throw airplanes into the trash can.'' He did not deny the role.

Von Braun, himself a private pilot, professed to hold test pilots in high esteem. He found them invaluable as monitors and observers during test flights. ''Just see how many firings of unmanned experimental missiles are still necessary these days to make a new prototype acceptable,'' he pointed out, versus the small number of aircraft required to certify a new design. Still, missile engineering was a completely new realm, distinct from aircraft development, and in the language of cybernetics, human senses must yield to machines. ''We have to substitute telemetry for the human mind, eyes and ears. We have to substitute automatically controlled guidance for your hands and muscular systems.'' Missiles were not simply new machines;they also engendered new techniques and new engineering cultures.

Then came the German engineer's disturbing thesis: ''When you consider the velocities and the forces involved in missile launchings, you come to realize that human intervention is not only impossible from the physical standpoint: it is actually undesir able.'' Not only would human payloads cause problems of reliability and stability for a missile, they would not even be able to help get a rocket off the ground. ''There is little time for intelligent reaction during the powered phase of flight,'' von Braun told the assembled group of skilled pilots, men who liked to describe themselves as finely tuned machines with human judgment. ''We like to think of man as an amazingly versatile computer. But in missile terms, he is outrageously slow and cumbersome.''

In case he wasn't yet clear, von Braun answered the question of whether human pilots could fly rockets by hand: ''In our more advanced existing rocket systems, human operation of controls, or human observation to follow a predetermined flight path during the high acceleration ascent, is simply out of the question.'' Guidance, abort sensing, even emergency ejection of the pilots from a failing rocket must all be under the control of automatic systems. The pilots, whom von Braun called ''missile riders,'' would be unable to determine if anything were going wrong. Potential problems would be both subtle and fast. In such circumstances, von Braun said of the failing rocket's pilot, ''He will just have to push the ejection button if the abort signal flashes and the automatic system fails.''

Von Braun's picture was not all doom for the pilots, for he added that they must exercise their flying skills once the spacecraft and its human payload are comfortably in orbit and separated from the booster. Pilots would find their new home in the vacuum of space, and the unknown, new realm would bridge two cultures. ''There is a common meeting ground—it is between us missileers and you experimental test pilots: in outer space.''

Von Braun concluded his missive with what must have been a faint palliative to the assembled pilots, echoing their kickoff talk two years before when the issue was ''survival'': ''Let us not tell you that your profession is dying: its greatest challenges lie ahead.''3

The speech landed like an ''icy B.M.'' on the group of space-hopeful pilots. The X-15 had first flown under its own power one month before. The Mercury spacecraft was under development;its silver-suited new astronauts debuted to the world earlier that year. They were already in training and would appear on the cover of Life magazine a month after von Braun's speech. Yet here was the nation's top rocket engineer barring these brave explorers from a major phase of future spaceflight: the exciting, fiery launch, forcing them to redefine their notion of ''control.'' Now, being in command would mean having a finger on the abort button as a backup for an automatic system and doing something, as yet undetermined, when reaching orbit.

If they had read von Braun's 1953 book, Conquest of the Moon, compiled from his articulate, beautifully illustrated articles in Colliers magazine, the pilots might have grown even more concerned. Von Braun proposed sending dozens of men to the moon, but the ''expedition leader'' would be a scientist. The remaining crew was to include navigators, engineers, physicians, astronomers, photographers, even a mineral-ogical team, but no pilots. It would not need them, even for the lunar landing, which von Braun pictured as fully automated. Von Braun's grandiose vision of the future of spaceflight had enormous impact, but it did not include hands-on control (figure 4.1).4

After the talk, Al Blackburn, the SETP president, stood up to rebut, taking ''sharp exception'' to von Braun's presentation. Blackburn recounted his own experiences with brain-dead autopilots, broken fire control systems, and failed cockpit computers. Blackburn remembered the evening in his memoir, recalling that von Braun called for anesthetizing the astronauts during launch.5 X-15 pilot Milt Thompson reported intense discussion following, continuing well into the after hours. As the official SETP history put it, ''The generous ministrations of the local hostelry supplied more than ample quantities of unneeded lubricity in the management of which the German rocket pioneer showed astonishing prowess.''6

The SETP published von Braun's speech in its monthly newsletter with a comment that they were glad to hear that such a leader as von Braun still considered the pilot an essential element in outer space. The society also took on a renewed mission, ''to convince individuals such as Dr. von Braun that the pilot can offer even greater aid to the space craft designers during the high acceleration launch period.''7 The pilots were not easily dissuaded. After half a century of wonderful, hard-earned progress, flying the shiny new rockets off the pad seemed their destiny. They would hold onto their dream, at least until the prospect of true control in space required comparable skills, and offered comparable rewards. But that was years away.

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