On Digital Apollo: human and Machine in Spaceflight by David Mindell

With the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 by the USSR the space race started, it was a race for space exploration supremacy. With the famous speech by President Kennedy where he says “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” the space race shifted to a moon landing race. On July 20, 1969 Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon, this accomplishment was possible because of the effort that the US did to gain supremacy on the race. On Digital Apollo: human and Machine in Spaceflight, David Mindell covers the story behind the landing on the moon but from a perspective that has not been talked much. Mindell explores the human-machine relationship that supported the task to land a person on the moon and the constant struggled between astronauts and engineers on how much human control should there be. The approach taken by Mindell is not to tell the story of Apollo with a heroic tone, praising the humans involved on the development of the project and its execution but to explain how humans and machine interacted and how perception of control shifted.

Mindell explains the relationship that pilots have had with their machine from the beginning of the history of airplanes. Mindell shows how the controls evolved and the constant discussion that existed on how much control should the human operator have. Mindell says that “technologies of control have evolved in parallel with the people who did the controlling” (p. 20). With this Mindell argues that the technical change and the social change that occurs are related and affected by each other.
There was a constant tradeoff between human control and electronic control and the research process for developing the planes consisted on this. This same philosophy of tradeoff appeared in the development of the Apollo project.

For me the most interesting part of the book was the development of the software that supported the Apollo. Software was a new concept at that time and the understanding of it was limited people believed that software bug was what made Armstrong take control of the landing when they were descending on the moon. The software turned out to be robust and the reliability that it has was what permitted the safe landing. If the software was buggy as many claimed the hole system would had crashed and Armstrong would had not be able to control the module.

Mindell constantly question (in a mild way) if the need of a human is needed in space exploration, I also wonder what was the purpose of landing a man on the moon beside pride. Did all the cost associated with those project where justified with the accomplishment. It sound like a great story that we can put a man on the moon but what difference had it made if a robot had been introduced. On the last chapter of the book Mindell briefly explains how the relationship between human and machine can be used on other fields like surgery, etc.

I believe that this new interaction that human and machine have can lead the way to new exploration and there is no need to take a human to mars or to the bottom of the ocean if a machine can do the same work. I know there is an argument of pride and honor, of experiencing, and that it is not the same thing to see something through a screen than to see it on person but do all the cost related to sending people to frontiers justify the accomplishments? With this we can think on what the future of spaceflight can be. What are the current purposes of space exploration and what do scientist want to gain from it. How is the gain obtained in space exploration translated to use in earth. 

The fundamental issue is the appropriate tradeoff that should be made between automation and human; Mindell explores this on his book and show the history on how this issue has been treated. For the future of human-machine relation this will still be an important issue as well as new definition of the role that human will have in world full of intelligent technology.

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