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Man v. Machine in Space

Man v. Machine in Space

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

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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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