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Digital Apollo

Man, machine and the dawn of software in the space age

by James Thorne in Tech on 01 December 2011

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In Digital Apollo, MIT professor of the history of engineering David Mindell plumbs the archives at the university in order to explore the tenuous relationship between man and machine during the Apollo landings. While machines had long defined human undertakings, it was the rise of software and intelligent machines that caused the most pronounced shift in mechanical interactions. As Mindell puts it, "Astronauts and their spacecraft were but the most visible manifestation of broad changes that raised fundamental questions: in a world of intelligent machines, who is in control?"

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Mindell reveals that in all six Apollo landings, a NASA pilot took control of the landing. Neil Armstrong was the first to do so, responding to an alarm in the guidance software that threatened to abort the mission. Integral to the design of these systems was both the automated and interactive components. Programmers were forced to come to grips with the limits of their own system and those of the pilots. In the end, it was always a synthesis of the two skill sets that resulted in a successful lunar landing.

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The book includes images from the various missions, interviews with NASA personnel, and a wealth of research that even the most informed space fans can enjoy. Mindell avoids the temptation to glorify the space program, instead dealing with the nitty gritty logistics involved in getting a man to the moon. Digital Apollo succeeds in providing an inside track to one of the most difficult technological challenges of the 20th century.

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The recent cancellation of the Constellation program and the uncertain future of space exploration lends special gravity to this volume. The 2008 hardcover of Digital Apollo didn't get the love it deserved, so we're letting you in on the new softcover release of this incredible work.

Digital Apollo is available from Amazon for $12.

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