Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight

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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, andNASA'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.David A. Mindell is Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering andManufacturing, Professor of Engineering Systems, and Director of the Program in Science, Technology,and Society at MIT. He is the author of Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing before Cybernetics and War, Technology, and Experience aboard the USS Monitor.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The book is a refreshing reminder that it is still possible to uncover new stories about the early years of the American space program."—Dwayne A.

Day, Air & Space

Edgar Mitchell
"[A] wealth of research that even the most informed space fans can enjoy. Mindell avoids the temptation to glorify the space program, instead dealing with the nitty gritty logistics involved in getting a man to the moon. Digital Apollo succeeds in providing an inside track to one of the most difficult technological challenges of the 20th century." —

" Digital Apollo succeeds in providing an inside track to one of the most difficult technological challenges of the 20th century." — JamesThorne, Cool Hunting

"Mindell joyfully plumbs the deep history of Apollo's decade-long clash between theMIT eggheads who built the computers and the thrill-jockey military test pilots who used them." IEEESpectrum

" Digital Apollo is an excellent and unique historical account of the lengthy, and often pitched struggle of designers, engineers, and pilots to successfully integrate man and complex computer systems for the Apollo lunar landings. It brings back fond memories." — Edgar Mitchell, Sc.D.;Captain, USN(retired) Lunar Module Pilot,Apollo 14

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780262134972
  • Publisher: MIT Press
  • Publication date: 5/31/2008
  • Series: Inside Technology Series
  • Pages: 376
  • Sales rank: 1,225,534
  • Product dimensions: 7.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

David A. Mindell is Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing,Professor of Engineering Systems, and Director of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society atMIT. He is the author of Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing beforeCybernetics and War, Technology, and Experience aboard the USSMonitor.

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2009

    More of an essay on the amount of control the astronauts should have

    This book is more of an essay on the debates that went on regarding how much control astronauts wanted versus MIT and the Instrument Lab wanting more automation. The first half of the book I found extremmely dry and focused on this debate and control schemes in the X-15 and Mercury flights. I understand it was a stepping stone but I really dont care how attitude-hold mode was setup in the X-15.
    The second half of the book is much more interesting and focuses on the design, construction, and testing of the AGC, the Apollo Guidance Computer. Alot of interesting backroom discussions about how the individual programs were devised, tested and used during the missions, with most of the focus on the actual landings.
    Not a bad book, especially if your a programmer but if your looking for info on how IMU alignment worked or how water cooled the LM's electronics look elsewhere.

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  • Posted March 2, 2009

    Interesting study of the digital systems in Apollo

    This is a fairly interesting look at the design and implementation of the computer systems in the Apollo program. It is not very technical, and I was hoping for some more details and nitty-gritty stuff, but it was informative and overall worth reading.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 5, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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