November 5, 2007
During the 1960s, on NASA's Apollo project to fly to the moon, engineers and astronauts worked together (in harmony and conflict) to design and build a "man-machine system" that combined the power of the computer with the reliability and judgment of a human pilot. This talk delves into the design and construction of the Apollo guidance and control system, by NASA and a small group of engineers at MIT's Instrumentation Lab. Astronauts were involved in the design of the system, and a question repeatedly arose: how much to automate the flight to the moon? Some engineers were convinced that computers could run the entire mission, with no input from the astronauts. NASA, of course, could not condone full automation, as the astronauts played a political role in the projects as exemplars of American prowess. The computer design and the software then emerged to reflect a philosophy of aiding the pilots in critical functions and at critical moments, while not actually replacing them. Tensions in this philosophy emerged in real-time during the final moments of each of the six lunar landings.
David Mindell is the Frances and David Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing at MIT. He received a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and a B.A. in Literature from Yale University and a Ph.D. from MIT in History of Technology. He was a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow and a fellow at the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology. Before coming to MIT he worked as a staff engineer in the Deep Submergence Laboratory of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where he is currently a visiting investigator. Professor Mindell is an adjunct researcher at the Institute for Exploration in Mystic, CT, and a visiting scientist at the Deep Submergence Laboratory of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. His research interests include technology policy (historical and current), the history of automation in the military, the history of electronics and computing, and deep-sea archaeology. Professor Mindell heads MIT's "DeepArch" research group in Deep Sea archaeology. He is the author of War, Technology and Experience Aboard the USS Monitor (2000), and Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing before Cybernetics (2002). He is the current director of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT.