Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight

  • Published

Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight by David A. Mindell. MIT Press, 2008, 384 pp.

With the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) curtailment of domestically operated manned missions via the space shuttle and the current reliance on Russian spacecraft for transport to the International Space Station, human spaceflight is as relevant today as ever. David Mindell’s Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight explores human spaceflight through the lens of the interaction between humans, both in the spacecraft and on the ground, and technology within the context of the Apollo program. Mindell acknowledges the existence of many books about Apollo but says that a number of them are simply chronologies and lack discussion about the significance and relevance of the mission series within space history. When they do put the program into context, conventional books approach the subject from a political or cultural paradigm. The author says that the value of Digital Apollo lies in the discussion of technology, humans, and the applicability of the two in space development (p. 9).

The book includes four sections: the early perspective of pilots regarding human spaceflight, precursors to the Apollo spacecraft, the iterative development of Apollo’s subsystems, and human-machine interactions within the missions. Pilots viewed the expansion of flight into space with hesitancy because heretofore their identity depended upon the balance between stability and controllability within aircraft (p. 20). During the creation of spacecraft leading up to and throughout the Apollo program, pilots often differed with developers about whether they should be “chauffeurs” (disconnected drivers serving as a guides) or “Airmen” (controllers involved in the experience of flight) (p. 21). Mindell finds the appropriate point along the chauffeur-Airmen spectrum by examining the level of human-controller involvement in projects preceding Apollo: the X-15 as well as the Mercury and Gemini programs. Those involved with the North American X-15 supported the position that astronauts should be pilots, not passengers, asserting that the aircraft’s high success rates stemmed from the fliers’ contributions (p. 61). In the Mercury program, humans served as backups to computers. However, in Gemini, the crew gained control of the spacecraft once it reached orbit and assisted in mission completion. In the development of Apollo’s systems, the main interaction between humans and technology resided not between controller and machine but between developers of various components of the spacecraft. One sees this dynamic in creation of the hardware and software for the Apollo program’s lunar module as well as the navigation and guidance systems. Digital Apollo recounts the execution of the Apollo 11 mission in considerable detail, emphasizing the advantages of including both human operators and automated technology in the spacecraft in order to complete a successful lunar landing. Subsequent missions are examined in relation to each one’s principal objective.

This readable book presents a well-crafted narrative, balancing the role of humans throughout the Apollo project and technical facts. Much of it relates the interactions between Apollo developers and operators regarding the amount of human involvement designed into the systems. The narrative is detailed and technically smart without being esoteric. Given the author’s credentials, such a pitfall could easily have occurred. Mindell is a professor of a variety of engineering, science, and space-related subjects at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has written two books similar to Digital Apollo about the interaction of humans and technology and has served on NASA’s Historical Advisory Committee. In addition to crafting a well-presented narrative, the author successfully introduces technology by educating without belittling the intelligence of his audience. Mindell incorporates technical pictorials that are both informative and relevant, effectively using the plethora of primary sources about the Apollo mission.

Given the vast, rich history of space exploration, its study is limitless and everlasting. Readers who desire a thorough yet concise knowledge base on the Apollo mission should pick up Digital Apollo. In addition to its scholarly worth, Airmen will find that it has professional value. First, to understand the Air Force’s cornerstone mission in space, one must have a background in the various facets of the US space program, including both the civil component, which encompasses the Apollo program, and the commercial component. Second, as automation becomes more prevalent in military systems, the interaction between humans and technology and their appropriate roles allows for the effective development of combat systems. As technology becomes more automated, human involvement provides a level of discrimination and error management not possible through machines. More holistically, in the financial environment that the military currently faces, the Air Force needs to think carefully about new technologies in terms of their ability to fulfill the desired objective. Mindell says that the purpose of his book is not to take sides in the human-machine debate but to offer more effective discussion (p. 271). Digital Apollo delivers, proving itself an invaluable account of the timeless interaction between humans and technology.

2nd Lt Jessica Wong, USAF
Schriever AFB, Colorado

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."