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Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight

Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight

by David A. Mindell
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2008
456 pp., illus. 54 b/w. Trade, $22.95
ISBN-10: 0-262-13497-7.

Reviewed by Maureen Nappi
Long Island University
Brooklyn, NY, USA

maureen.nappi@liu.edu

Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight by the historian David A. Mindell is the third book in what the author describes as “an unplanned trilogy” or trajectory of historical scholarly pursuits. Although not thematically identical, each text in the series uniquely revolves around another triad of concerns: technological invention; associative human identity, control and experience; and war—ranging from the very hot to the very cold.  As such, this quintessentially American trilogy follows a chronological timeline with increasing technological complexity. The first in the series is War, Technology, and Experience Aboard the USS Monitor (2000), a fascinating study of the Union’s USS Monitor, a seafaring war vessel fatally utilized during the American Civil War; the second, Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing Before Cybernetics (2002), is an historical recalibration of the pre-existence and utility of control systems theory before and during World War II, several years prior to its nominal invention by Norbert Weiner.  The third is the aforementioned text, Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight, an engaging overview of the digital computer system in the Apollo Space expeditions, considered so intrinsic to the missions that it was named by some to be the “fourth crew member.”

For Digital Apollo, Mindell received the Eugene M. Emme Astronautical Literature Award, named after the first NASA historian Eugene M. Emme, and granted by the AAS, American Astronautical Society.  AAS dualistically acronymizes the organization’s mission statement, Advancing All Space, and as such honors AAS Fellows, including the founder of our beloved journal Leonardo, Dr. Frank Malina, for his pioneering contributions to space flight.  However, this Rocketman, one of the original three, is disappointingly not cited in Digital Apollo despite the use of his patented hydrazine-nitric acid mixture to propel the engines of the Apollo Service and Lunar Excursion Modules.

Mindell’s account places particular emphasis on the Automatic Guidance System (AGS) contracted to the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, which has since been renamed the Draper Laboratory after its founder Charles Stark Draper, and left the auspices of the MIT, although the Draper Laboratory remains in close proximity to MIT’s main campus in Kendall Square.  Nonetheless, the MIT historical connections remain strong as the author is not only the Frances and David Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing, the Director of the S.T.S. Program as well as a Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, but he is also an historian of MIT.

With expert agility, Mindell dives into the mass of data surrounding the Apollo missions, hones in on, and skillfully draws out the main plot line of the drama, the primordial struggle for control – man versus machine – as the astronauts were, by requirement, all male, military test pilots.  Since the Apollo missions were interestingly synchronic with the launch of the Women’s Liberation Movement spanning a time when job descriptions were rigidly codified and classified by gender, thus, severely limiting what women could even conceive of doing or being. I sincerely appreciate and applaud the author’s use of the term Human in the subtitle of the book, as “Human and Machine in Spaceflight,” and would be offended were he to write otherwise, it still, unfortunately, seems to retrofit history while reminding one who remembers the Apollo missions that the exclusion of women in spaceflight was, then, considered a priori.  No fault of the author here, however, this clearly remains an historian’s dilemma.

Irrespective, Mindell deftly builds upon the technological tug-of-war drama between the astronauts and the design engineers, or rather, more precisely, the amount of control and flying power the astronauts were to have in the Apollo missions versus the design engineers’ more automatized vision of their role. The strongest proponent of automation was none other than Wernher von Braun, of Operation Paperclip fame, a fact that the author nimbly averts, yet still remains vestigially reminiscent of more fascistic control.

However, Mindell gives voice to the astronauts, as Digital Apollo echoes its origins as a collaborative oral history endeavor entitled the “Apollo Guidance Computer History Project” funded by the Sloan Foundation and the former Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology at MIT, which assembled many of the still living participants in the Apollo missions. And as it turned out, the astronauts triumphantly ascended to being more that what they derisively termed Spam in the Can.  In each of the six Apollo lunar landings, the commanding astronaut “took control from the computer and landed with his hand on the stick,” thus not only asserting [hu]man power over machine, but making for a great read as well.


Last Updated 10 October, 2010

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