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Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight

4.26  ·  Rating Details ·  286 Ratings  ·  30 Reviews
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 ...more
Hardcover, 359 pages
Published May 1st 2008 by MIT Press
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A Man on the Moon by Andrew ChaikinLost Moon by Jim LovellFailure is Not an Option by Gene KranzThe Right Stuff by Tom WolfeCarrying the Fire by Michael  Collins
Space Race! Books
64th out of 236 books — 91 voters
An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth by Chris HadfieldThe Last Man on the Moon by Eugene CernanFailure is Not an Option by Gene KranzThe Right Stuff by Tom WolfeA Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin
The Space Age
37th out of 94 books — 22 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
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Jul 09, 2012 David rated it really liked it
I think it's important to note that this book is really about its subtitle, not it's title. That is, it's more about Human and Machine in Spaceflight than it is about Digital Apollo. In fact, it may surprise you to know that nearly the first third of the book goes by little more than brief mentions of computers and the Apollo program.

In fact, if I had to pick a title for this book, it might be something like, "The Role of Human and Machine in Spaceflight as it Evolved Towards and in the Apollo S
"Yet within this history lay a paradox, or at least an irony. As aviation matured, aeronautical science became increasingly adept at measuring and modeling the airflow around an aircraft and designing structures and devices to accommodate it. But the core of the aircraft was still the pilot, a human being, a subject that engineering has never fully mastered. Hence the pilot's importance: performing tasks that are difficult to measure and model" (Mindell, pg. 20).

"Today, it might seem obvious tha
Amy Teitel
Jul 23, 2009 Amy Teitel added it
Shelves: space-books, own
What I've learned from this book is that I'd really like to go to MIT to work with Mindell...
Victor Gonzalez
May 14, 2013 Victor Gonzalez rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Jun 01, 2014 Prasanna rated it it was amazing
The Apollo missions have long been hailed as the ultimate proof of man's perseverance, and for pilots -- ability to land in the most hostile of terrains - the Moon. This book breaks that myth, at least that's the effect it had on me. I was expecting a lot of talk about how the "digital" side of the machine functioned - what the instructions were, how they came up with those and what the technical tradeoffs were that led to the successful missions. Instead the Subtitle is the key message -- here ...more
Apr 02, 2014 Ilya rated it liked it
As Tom Wolfe tells in much detail in The Right Stuff, early American astronauts were test pilots who wanted to fly their spacecraft, not just passively sit inside and let ground control or onboard computers fly them. Note that the computers of the time were very primitive by the standard of today, and could be downright dangerous: in one of the flights of the North American X-15 suborbital spaceplane, an adaptive autopilot amplified pilot error and caused the plane to break apart, killing the pi ...more
Nov 03, 2008 Michael rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Michael by: Mike
I thoroughly enjoyed reading "Digital Apollo." This was a book I honestly had trouble putting down. Because this book was published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and written by a MIT professor, I was concerned that the book would be overly technical and read like a dry college textbook. I could not have been more wrong. Dr. Mindell's book gives the reader an excellent balance of technical information and anecdotal stories that make the book both informative and entertaining. I ...more
David Czuba
Feb 21, 2016 David Czuba rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
To my knowledge, no one else has dared write an in-depth account of the melding of astronaut and equipment in the lunar landing saga. It is controversial only because the astronauts spoke first in autobiographies and biographies that tended to glorify the gravitas and single-mindedness of steely eyed missile men, and their mastery over cockpit controls. Mindell,MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics, as well as a technology historian, paints an intriguing picture while posing a difficult ...more
Apr 29, 2013 Ari rated it really liked it
Primarily not about the underlying computer technology (though that is covered in some detail.) The real topic is the social process that led to the decision of what to automate, and of how the technology was used.

Something I hadn't previously understood is that Apollo had much more automation than any previous vehicle or technical system -- it was the first fly-by-wire craft controlled by a general purpose programmable computer.

Programmable might be slightly over-stating things, however. Someth
John Carter McKnight
Aug 12, 2012 John Carter McKnight rated it it was amazing
One of the very best STS books I've read. More analytical than theoretical, but with a deep knowlege of both hands-on engineering and systems analysis. Mindell tells the story of Apollo, which is familiar enough, but from a unique perspective -that of the development of its software, a word coined just a year before the first contracts were issued.

It's the story of a birth of an industry, tensions between MIT's Draper Labs and defense contractors in style and substance, how corporate forms, mana
Jesper Jorgensen
Nov 30, 2015 Jesper Jorgensen rated it really liked it
Shelves: space, technology
As mere PC user with very little to no knowledge of the 'inner secrets' and history of data processing, this book was a 'beast' to read.

Even if fascinating, more than much of the content was way over my head, like 'hardwired software' and 'read-only rope memory'.

I also found the 'man vs machine' issue fascinating from todays point of view. Maybe a bit long-haired though.

My guess is that you have to have more than average computer knowledge and interest in the issue to get the full advantage of
Chris Jacobsen
Nov 23, 2015 Chris Jacobsen rated it it was amazing
This was a very interesting book on the tradeoffs between human and automatic control of the Apollo spacecraft, and indeed of the evolution of control systems in aircraft and missiles in the years before and slightly after. The author does a great job of telling a story, and conveying the complexity of choices. I have also read a number of books on the Apollo program and this is the only one that really tells about the MIT Instrumentation Lab, and indeed the only one that really explains how the ...more
Sep 08, 2012 Drew rated it really liked it
The verb-noun structure of PowerShell came from Apollo? Really?

If you want to understand what the Astronauts actually did, you need to read this book. Because interacting with the computer was the most complex task they performed. I wish the book had come with a simulator :)

I think it is safe to say that the push on the part of the test pilots for an interactive flight experience made the safe return of Apollo 13 possible.

Plus -- the exciting story about how a back-room engineer earned the Meda
Jul 05, 2013 Jerry rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
An interesting book about the background and design choices that resulted in the balance between manual control and automation in the Apollo program. It goes into the differing philosophies and cultures of the test pilots and aircraft engineers versus the missile engineers and how their differences were resolved. There is a lot of detail about the tasks of the astronauts and the workings of the systems on the spacecraft. It describes the challenges and the problems encountered during each of the ...more
Mark Scheuern
Jul 13, 2013 Mark Scheuern rated it it was amazing
A scholarly, detailed, yet wonderfully readable and fun history of the Apollo guidance computer. Mindell covers in detail topics like the pilot-vs-passenger controversies, the culture clash between NASA and MIT, man-machine interfaces, and the LOL's (little old ladies) who painstakingly constructed the "cores on a rope". An extensive bibliography is included. A terrific book for anyone with an interest in the space program
Roberto Selbach
Jun 22, 2014 Roberto Selbach rated it it was amazing
This is a fantastic read for the geeks out there. I've read many books on the Apollo program including some very technical ones, but this is special. It aims at merging the human and machine stories into one and it does a great job at that (even if you might argue that it does spend more time in the machine side of the stories, but I believe this to be unavoidable.)

Very good book if you're into engineering.
Dec 21, 2010 Neil rated it really liked it
A scholarly book about the enterprise of controlling spacecraft through hardware and software. If you know something about space flight history and understand the process software engineering, then you may appreciate this account. What I found most interesting is the antagonism between the pilots and the engineers. Such a thing was popularized in "The Right Stuff", but this book explains it in detail. Illuminating!
Jul 10, 2016 Vicki rated it really liked it
Really solid and super-super interesting book about the conflict between man and machine on the way to space. Like other reviews have said, it doesn't get into Apollo until probably 1/3 into the book, but all of the themes are super-relevant to the discussions about AI in the media today. An important and interesting work.
Julian Simioni
Dec 31, 2013 Julian Simioni rated it it was amazing
For someone who loves reading about the details of the Apollo project, or really any space program, this book is a must read. It's fairly technical, and quite detailed, but wrapped in an excellent narrative regarding the balance of "manual" and "automatic" systems in spaceships, planes, and anything else.
Raul Lopez
Jul 05, 2016 Raul Lopez rated it really liked it
Very good narration of details related to the Apollo program making an emphasis on human-in-the-loop decisions.

Only possible improvement would be to make the pace more constant. Some chapters go very fast, others are too detailed, as if the amount of information about each chapter varies.
Aug 06, 2016 Adam rated it it was amazing
Awesome read. You'll learn about the new computer technologies that shaped the Apollo missions, and the people behind those technologies. I especially liked learning about the culture clash---and positive synergy---between the astronauts and the computer nerds.
Dec 03, 2012 Philski rated it it was amazing
Great book on the interaction of the Apollo pilots and flight computers and the struggles of accommodating both.
David Erickson
Dec 11, 2015 David Erickson rated it it was amazing
Good overview of the MIT developed computers used on Apollo, particularly the tug-of-war between the nerds (we need to control everything) and the Astronauts (we need to drive this thing).
Feb 06, 2013 Samuel rated it liked it
Fascinating info you can't find anywhere else. Severely hampered by author's anti-human-spaceflight bias and thus only recommended for people who need to read it.
Tim Robinson
May 21, 2015 Tim Robinson rated it it was ok
Shelves: engineering
There should be a gripping story here, yet the text is so ponderous I didn't have patience to find it. The book starts well but waffles its way to obscurity in chapter two.
Apr 20, 2009 Albert rated it it was amazing
Very interesting book about the early computers used in the Apollo program. A good description also of the different control systems.
Ali rated it really liked it
Aug 06, 2015
Edward rated it really liked it
Nov 01, 2015
Tharen Debold
Tharen Debold rated it really liked it
Aug 10, 2014
Emil rated it really liked it
Aug 22, 2014
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