Wings and wheels at last

Were these questions unique to Apollo? Did they arise from some special set of social and technological circumstances during the early history of spaceflight and computer? Absolutely not: the questions raised by Apollo's history remain fundamental to human spaceflight and other technological endeavors.

Immediately after Apollo (indeed during Apollo), NASA chose to send an aircraft into orbit. The space shuttle put pilots at the center of American manned spaceflight for a generation. Chauffeurs versus airmen? The pilots won.

Robert Chilton, the man responsible for the digital computer on Apollo, saw the shuttle's genesis this way: ''I was very unhappy with the way the program was going away from the Moon, and that was all largely an astronaut influenced decision. They were pilots and they wanted to—nobody had ever built a spaceship that had wings or landed, and they thought that was a deficiency. . . . They wanted something they could fly and land. So I didn't believe any of the justification for Shuttle.''2 In 1970, during the shuttle's formative phase, one engineer complained, ''They're [NASA] talking about automatic landings and the pilots are yelling, 'Keerist, no!' [But] you can design this thing so that the pilot still makes the decision with respect to the landing and yet it's done automatically.''3 Like the LM, the shuttle relies on a fly-by-wire control system (running software created in part by Intermetrics, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, firm founded by five MIT programmers from Apollo).4 Like the LM, the space shuttle has an automatic landing feature that is never used.

In his memoir, astronaut Walter Cunningham made the point in terms of the pilots' professional dignity. Whereas the Apollo command module fell into the sea, the crew recovered ''by helicopter like a bag of cats saved from a watery grave,'' the space shuttle orbiter, by contrast, ''makes a smooth landing at the destination airport and the flight crew steps down from the spacecraft in front of a waiting throng in a dignified and properly heroic manner.''5

The shuttle first flew in April 1981, culminating with Columbia's landing at Edwards Air Force Base, Apollo 16 Commander John Young at the controls. The moment represented America's return to space after a seven-year hiatus, but also the return of space flight to California's high desert, which some saw as its proper home, the test pilots reigning supreme. Michael Collins perhaps put it best in his book on the history of spaceflight: ''Wings and wheels ...a dignified flying machine at last, no more awkward capsules.''6

In the 1950s, advocates for the X-15 project argued that reentry would require human skill. Yet humans have manually flown only one shuttle reentry: flight number two of Columbia, when former X-15 pilot Joe Engle flew from Mach 25 down to the ground to test the stability and control system. Subsequent shuttle reentries have flown automatically, though pilots still control the landing: despite the presence of automated systems, every shuttle flight has ended with a human flying final approach and touchdown ''manually.''

During the shuttle's development phase, voices within NASA called for including the ability to fly fully automatic missions. NASA neither planned such missions nor designed options for them into the system, arguing that only human presence would maximize the chances for successful return of the orbiter.7 In recent comments, Chris Kraft, who was director of the Manned Spacecraft Center at the time, regretted this decision because an automatic system would have allowed a quicker and easier return to flight after the Columbia and Challenger disasters.8 (The Russian copy of the shuttle, named Buran, flew once in 1988 with no crew and landed automatically on a runway in a stiff crosswind.)

Strangely, the only aspect of a shuttle reentry that cannot be automated is the landing gear, which the crew must deploy manually with a lever. After the Columbia accident, shuttle flights do include a crude automatic landing feature as a last resort. If the shuttle's reentry protection was crippled (as happened with Columbia), the crew could evacuate to the International Space Station. They would then rewire the shuttle to install a basic capability to separate the orbiter from the station, reenter, deploy the gear, and land under computer control. Experiences of disaster and evolving attitudes toward risk prompted changes in the balance between human and machine in the shuttle system.

This short survey of pilots, professional identity, and automation in the space shuttle's history is merely suggestive. The shuttle emerged from a complex mix of engineering, politics, and institutions (the physical dimensions of the vehicle literally reflect NASA's political alliances to secure the program's funding) combined with impossibly optimistic estimates of cost savings for a reusable vehicle. Still, a scholarly, document-based history of the role of astronauts and NASA's astronaut office in the conceptualization and development of the shuttle would elucidate the role of human-machine questions in setting NASA's agenda in manned spaceflight for the past four decades.

As if to comment on that history, NASA's next manned spacecraft, designed for travel to the space station and possible return to the moon, resembles an Apollo-like command module. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin calls it ''Apollo on steroids,''

suggesting a spacecraft that can still be muscular without wings or wheels. The new Crew Exploration Vehicle (roughly equivalent to the command module in Apollo) will have fully automated rendezvous and docking, with manual control as a backup.

For lunar landings, at least some NASA engineers are still contemplating pilots' hands on the stick in the final moments (although several Apollo veterans I spoke to suggested future landings be fully automated). Current plans involve automated landers delivering supplies and returning to the earth as engineering tests before any human landings.9 High-resolution maps, precision navigational sensors, computer imaging, advanced user interfaces, and modern computer power will surely change the equation from the 1960s. Will future lunar landings be fully automated? If so, who will be in command? Chauffeurs or airmen? Scientists or pilots? Or others?

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