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Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight
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Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight

4.26  ·  Rating details ·  565 ratings  ·  55 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 triu ...more
Hardcover, 359 pages
Published May 1st 2008 by MIT Press
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Jul 09, 2012 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
Jun 14, 2013 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
I absolutely loved reading Digital Apollo! I'm an EE professor who teaches a lot of both hardware and (embedded) software, so the subject, while nearly 50 years old, is still very relevant to the types of things that I teach. The human-machine interface, how software can replace hardware as a source of automation, and the implications of replacing an aviator with a "machine" are all still relevant today. You might say that Apollo was the genesis to many of these problems.

Firstly, it's fascinatin
Ami Iida
Mar 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
It's the programming and practical for the plan of Apollo .
Oct 10, 2010 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
Amy Shira Teitel
What I've learned from this book is that I'd really like to go to MIT to work with Mindell... ...more
Aug 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Super interesting book about human machine interaction using the Apollo program. I found interesting correlations both to flying the F/A-18 and airlines. Highly recommend.
"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
Joao Neto
Good insights but expected more

This book encompasses a lot of information about the automation and computer guidances of the X15, Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, but at the same time spends a lot of time debating phylosophical questions regarding human machine interaction and manual piloting vs full automation. I was expecting a bit more detail in specific incidents and could do with less phylosophical meandering.
Sebastian Gebski
Jan 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
I picked up this book to learn more about the technology of early space flights - how was it developed, tested, operated, what was it based upon, etc. This book truly delivers a lot of such information, but it's focused on something else - and you get a hint about that in the subtitle. This is mainly a book about a pilot's autonomy - what can and should be automated and where it's better (was better) to rely on programs, routines & machines in general.

The book gets better and better with every r
Ken Muldrew
Jan 26, 2020 rated it really liked it
Digital Apollo is a history of the avionics and automation developed and used for the Apollo Space Program, but it develops that history as a narrative, moving from early uses of automation (automation = sensors + computation + actuators) in aircraft to Apollo so that some of the odd choices made during the Apollo program (odd to us, 50 years on, who have grown comfortable with embedded computers that control almost everything) are shown in their proper context. Many readers will be impatient to ...more
Eric Sullenberger
Jun 28, 2019 rated it it was ok
This book was a little too technical for me and my taste. It has appeal for anyone who is interested in the history of computer programming or engineering, but it would help to have experience in those fields to fully follow this book. I stuck with it in part because I recently learned through one of the Apollo podcast (13 Minutes to the Moon, I think) that some of the Apollo programs were actually hardwired into the system through actual weaving in the code in material in individual 1s and 0s. ...more
May 17, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Truly an outstanding history of NASA's Apollo series of missions from the point of view of the digital computers that made these successes possible. In 1960, the smallest real computers were still the size of refrigerators, and tended to crash at least once a day, so the idea of shrinking a capable computer to fit in one cubic foot and run reliably for several weeks at a time was breathtaking, if not crazy. Yet MIT's Instrumentation Laboratory believed they could produce such a computer. Interes ...more
Claudiu Vădean
Idk why exactly, but audiobooks seem to take way longer for me to finish. In this case, the narrator was an acquired taste to put it mildly. The book is an interesting exposé on '60s' advances in automation and the diminishing role of humans in space exploration. I equally enjoyed the technical parts detailing the systems and the ones dealing with the politics and management scuffles inherent to a space program. Deduct a star if you consider the subject a bit too niche and pick a physical copy ( ...more
Kent Archie
Jun 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
Perhaps too much philosophy about the relationship between humans and computers. I learned a lot about the 1202 alarms during the Apollo 11 landing. It was also interesting how the astronauts took credit for the brilliant designs of the computer builders. As a software developer,I would have liked more about the development process and the programmers themselves, but there are other books about that
Brian Miracle
Oct 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: technology
Good study of the development of the Apollo Guidance Computer. The book also covers the debate over whether Apollo would be “flown” by pilots, by computers, or a combination of both. Also covered is how the guidance computer was an early example of “fly by wire”, where the computer translated the inputs of astronauts to control actuations.
Andrew Washburn
May 31, 2021 rated it really liked it
A just enougg technical history of the men who flew the early space missions and designed the computers which kept them aloft. Pretty cool learning about the first applications of automatic control. Apparently the end of the fighter pilot has been forecast for a long time, and so far hasn’t come to fruition yet!
Aug 05, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A fun read especially if you would like a technical history of Apollo. Sometimes it reads like a text book and leaves me wanting more intimate stories of some of the people. However if you love the Apollo program this is a very unique read.
Mattias Sandström
Jun 30, 2022 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: storytel
As the author put it: this is a summary in the realm between "Apollo 11 and program errors 1201 and 1202 and the details of the AGC". Spot on! Many interesting descriptions of how the astronauts actually used and influence on the design of their spaceship and equipment. ...more
Paul Kinzer
Jan 30, 2019 rated it really liked it
Great read for engineer/computer geeks that are also space history buffs.
Apr 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
By far the most complete account of the Apollo program spacecraft that I have ever read. Thoroughly researched, gripping in its detail.
Neil Ferguson-lee
Feb 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
Excellent technical review. I found the philosophy a little grating but that is only because of my fascination with the nuts and bolts.
Victor Gonzalez
May 14, 2013 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 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
Feb 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
It is not an easy read because of very detailed explanations you do not really care about. However when you find something that you care about it becomes very interesting. So look at the titles and read whatever you find interesting.
Feb 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: software, space
I started the book hoping to learn about how interfaces (UI) between Apollo's control computer and the astronauts were designed. While the book doesn't clearly answer my question, I did learn a lot about the decisions, trade-offs and techniques used when building the control systems of Apollo. The author explores in details the politics and technical choices involved in the engineering of this complex system. The emphasis is on the relative role of human vs computer, trade-offs between extent of ...more
Jul 21, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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 als ...more
David Czuba
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
John Carter McKnight
Aug 12, 2012 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
Oct 29, 2015 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
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