- Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight
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" (p. xi) 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 a 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 Digital Apollo, 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 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, 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 has left the auspices of the MIT, although the Draper Laboratory remains in close proximity to MIT's main campus in Kendall Square. Nonetheless, the historical connections to MIT 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 STS Program as well as a professor of aeronautics and astronautics but is also a historian of MIT.
With expert agility, Mindell dives into the mass of data surrounding the Apollo missions and homes in on and skillfully draws out the main plotline 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, they thus were severely limiting in terms of 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; still it seems, unfortunately, to retrofit history while reminding those who remember the Apollo missions that the exclusion of women [End Page 269] in spaceflight was then considered a priori. No fault of the author here; however, this clearly remains a historian's dilemma.
Regardless, Mindell deftly builds upon the technological tug-of-war drama between the astronauts and the design engineers, or, 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 evades but that remains vestigially reminiscent of more fascistic control.
Mindell, however, gives voice to the astronauts, as Digital Apollo echoes its...