Man v. Machine in Space

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

Same Moon, different machine.

Same Moon, different machine. Source: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Source: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

After the outstanding series on NASA missions that ran last month (they got Neil Armstrong!) "In the Shadow of the Moon", The Discovery Channel starts a new six-part series next week, called "Moon Machines." The second episode, which airs Tuesday night (7/8), focuses on the guidance computer NASA engineers developed and installed aboard both the Command capsule, and the LEM, the vehicle that actually landed on the moon. It's based on a book called, Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight, written by David Mindell, a professor who specializes in the history of technology at MIT. As he notes in the book, the relationship between man and machine is not a new story — he cites the mythical John Henry, who won his battle with a steam drill at the cost of his life, and Charles Lindbergh, who used the word "we" to describe his partnership with his aircraft. In the 1960s, even as they incorporated the then exotic technology of integrated circuits and software, a word almost unknown as the project began, they had to figure out how these new machines would be used by the astronaut/pilots. The "man-machine" system they adopted kept the astronaut "in the loop", visibly and overtly in command, partly as the result of politics, partly to respect the professional dignity of the pilots and partly because there are times when there is no substitute for human judgment. Though the computer was programmed to land the LEM, every pilot who descended to the surface of the Moon, starting with Neil Armstrong, turned the automatic system off, and landed on manual. As we see ever more capable technology, including cruise missiles and the drones now widely used for military reconnaissance, it's a discussion that continues today.

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David--I very much enjoyed listening to you and neal and some of Chuck Yeager's "monkey" corrections!
Can you share about the Mars Mission landing that went wrong when inches and feet were "SUDDENLY" being used rather than metric system numbers? I'm lousy in math but I'm curious why America is NOT going metric, while science went there long ago?

Sent by richard Burrill | 3:29 PM | 7-3-2008

During the Apollo 11 landing, the computer was giving "1202" and "1201" alarms.
1202 - Data Overload (equal to Windows slow)
1201 - Processor Overload (equal to Windows Crashing)

Except for the steady hand of Neil Armstrong (and patience of Buzz Aldrin), Apollo 11 would have been our first lunar landing failure!
Ever since, whenever computers might fail with lives in the balance, human hands have been ready to "take over" in a split second.

Sent by Harold | 4:38 PM | 7-3-2008