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Digital Apollo — Latest Read

I finished up the end of May with Digital Apollo by David A. Mindell. It is a unique historical account of the challenges faced by designers, engineers, and pilots to successfully integrate man and complex computer systems for the Apollo lunar landings. The book puts into perspective the very different, sometimes conflicting, ideas on how to accomplish the goals of the program. It also demonstrated how building something that would keep people alive in a hostile environment helped drive the focus and execution of everyone involved.

I think we often fail to understand how complex the systems we create truly are and how there are no “simple” or absolute answers on the best ways to solve problems. I am working on a couple of fairly complex projects right now. There is a fair amount of debate about not only how to solve the problem, but on what problem we are actually trying to solve. Hopefully, we will be able to come together to design and build something like the Apollo team did. One small step…

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Digital Apollo by David A. Mindell Cover

Digital Apollo

By David A. Mindell

How human pilots and automated systems worked together to achieve the ultimate in flight—the lunar landings of NASA’s Apollo program
As Apollo 11’s Lunar Module descended toward the moon under automatic control, a program alarm in the guidance computer’s software nearly caused a mission abort. Neil Armstrong responded by switching off the automatic mode and taking direct control. He stopped monitoring the computer and began flying the spacecraft, relying on skill to land it and earning praise for a triumph of human over machine. In Digital Apollo, engineer-historian David Mindell takes this famous moment as a starting point for an exploration of the relationship between humans and computers in the Apollo program. In each of the six Apollo landings, the astronaut in command seized control from the computer and landed with his hand on the stick. Mindell recounts the story of astronauts’ desire to control their spacecraft in parallel with the history of the Apollo Guidance Computer. From the early days of aviation through the birth of spaceflight, test pilots and astronauts sought to be more than “spam in a can” despite the automatic controls, digital computers, and software developed by engineers.
Digital Apollo examines the design and execution of each of the six Apollo moon landings, drawing on transcripts and data telemetry from the flights, astronaut interviews, and NASA’s extensive archives. Mindell’s exploration of how human pilots and automated systems worked together to achieve the ultimate in flight—a lunar landing—traces and reframes the debate over the future of humans and automation in space. The results have implications for any venture in which human roles seem threatened by automated systems, whether it is the work at our desktops or the future of exploration

Published September 30, 2011
376 pages (print)

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