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Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight
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32 of 35 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
While this book dwells more on computers than astronauts, it contains details from the actual moon landings that I've never seen published elsewhere. Despite contrary opinions by the astonauts, this book has convinced me that a 100% all-human landing (without computers) was not technically possible. If you liked "Journey to the Moon: The History of the Apollo Guidance Computer" then you'll like this.

p.s. This book describes the operation of a zero-weight low-tech technology known as the LPD (landing point designator) which is comprised of colored markings on the commander's window. One of the AGC display lines tells the commander which lines to look through.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on September 10, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Thankfully the publisher used silky cream paper to print this book. Both your hands and your brain are pampered. Clear line illustration inside with a fantastic cover graphic, this book rewards the touch of your hand by taking you on a magic carpet ride through the inner workings of developing the guidance and navigation systems for the moon shot. It is the "Soul of the New Machine" for the Apollo program.

It's a fascinating account of how the guidance computer and the human astronaut (and flight controllers) struggled to rely on each other for the landing on the moon. The love-hate emotions of the computer-astronaut interface are felt throughout the book. Although there is no shortage of technical detail, it all seems essential to the narrative. Initially, it seems as if the book is losing focus, but soon the connections become clear: the book reads like a detective novel.

If you have read two or more books on the space program, this should be your next purchase. Once you have read one Apollo book, there is a lot of repetition - not here. It provides many details the others lack.

A secondary audience for this book is anyone interested in IT project management. This book provides a case study on complex, mission-critical project management. Much to be learned. This should be required ready for engineering majors.

At under $20, this book will set off fireworks in the pleasure centers neurons.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on December 2, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Just to be clear, I have a degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics from MIT, obtained in the year 1968, when astronauts first reached the moon. I have made a career in aerospace ever since. With this background I found the book to be fascinating and read it from cover to cover in about 2 days. physically the book is of extremely high quality and very well produced. A pleasure to hold. The book is very well written, and the technical discussions are comprehensive, accurate and enlightening. Despite a career long informal study of the Apollo Program, I learned a lot. (such as what really happened during the Apollo 11 descent and landing). Figures and tables are well chosen and well presented thoughout. The descriptions of the people involved are interesting and insightful. They ring true. I'd recommend this to anyone with a backgound in computers interested in Apollo, and anyone with a backgound in space systems interested in computers.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on August 14, 2010
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
I'm a space geek, and I found the material in the bok fascinating. I worked for a time at Intermetrics, the software company founded by some of the people mentioned in the book as denizens of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, which also added interest for me.

BUT - the Kindle edition is dreadful! A number of the figures have disappeared (only the captions appear), and the figures that ARE there are nearly unviewable (at least on my 1st generation Kindle). Do yourself a favor and buy the physical artifact.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon July 29, 2009
Format: Hardcover
"Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight" by David A. Mindell is an excellent work of history and a benchmark in the study of Project Apollo. It will become a starting point for all future work on the technology of this important space effort. The landscape of Apollo is littered with general histories, memoirs, and run-of-the mill popular accounts, but outstanding historical writing on the subject is much less common.

In the past most historians have focused on one of five major areas relative to Apollo. These include the foreign policy and public policy antecedents of Apollo and its immediate ramifications, the flights of the astronauts, the history of lunar science, the social and cultural history of the Moon landings, and the evolution of space technology. It is in this last category that this work makes an important contribution. While most of the prior work on the history of Apollo technology has been internalist in focus and undertaken by those mesmerized by the "nuts and bolts" story without much attention to the wider context, Mindell's account embraces a larger vision of how Apollo fit into the human/machine relationship for flight vehicles. He argues for, and then succeeds in demonstrating, a new research agenda in the history of human spaceflight that extends beyond the virtual catechism of retelling of a specific myth in the conventional story. He shows how historians might move beyond the "fetish for the artifact" that has dominated most of the historiography of Apollo.

Mindell's most significant contribution is to highlight the debate that has raged since the origins of spaceflight between the pilot/astronauts and the aerospace engineers over the degree of control held by each group in human-rated spacecraft. The engineers placed much greater emphasis on automatic control systems and sought to reduce the role of astronauts on board a spacecraft. These space engineers mostly viewed the astronaut as a "weak link" in the spacecraft control system. Of course, the question of whether machines could perform control functions better than people became the subject of considerable public debate.

The ever increasing capability of electronic systems served to undermine the argument in favor of complete human control. Despite this, the American astronauts used their celebrity status to assert more control over spacecraft systems, seeking to overcome what many thought they already were, "spam in a can." Over time they were successful, to the extent that the Space Shuttle became the first American human space vehicle that could not be flown as an automated system. This dynamic of human/machine interaction is critical to the current approach to human spaceflight, and Mindell has performed a valuable service by shining an intense searchlight on these issues.

What "Digital Apollo" does better than any work yet published, is open a window to the fascinating interactions of the astronauts and the engineers in the developing the technologies and processes necessary for the landings on the Moon. The author emphasizes the manner in which the Lunar Modules set down on the surface and the control systems that allowed that difficult task to take place. Mindell expends considerable effort to understand the design and development of the Apollo Guidance Computer, a critical piece of technology that fundamentally altered the nature of the task, and how this was employed in developing procedures for landing. The last part of this work focuses on the experience of the lunar landings themselves.

No one has explored this theme previously in the history of U.S. human spaceflight despite a large number of sophisticated analytical histories concerning Apollo technology written by master historians. Those previous works, often prepared under contract to NASA were marked by well-defined and quite restricted parameters, high levels of research in primary source documents, comprehensive treatment, and a generally turgid style. Mindell uses their documentary nature to his advantage, as grist for his novel investigation. The result is an outstanding work of history.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
In "Digital Apollo" David Mindell has created a thoughtful and readable account of the design of the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC), the software that allowed it to succeed, the history of its use, and the bigger picture issues of human factors and automation interface issues in complex systems in general. While I differ with him on some of his perspectives (I am a pilot, and tend to side with the "man in the loop" opinions held by the astronauts, most eloquently voiced by Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott), I found the entire book engrossing and his approach to complex human factors, ergonomic, and automation issues to be extraordinarily useful, especially to professionals in the field.

The book traces the history of the AGC, discusses its growth and capabilities, and its real world use. I was especially pleased with chapters nine and ten which dealt in detail with each of the six landings, differences between the landings, and differing attitudes held by the various astronauts about the computer and its functionality. I was pleased with the detailed coverage that Apollo 12 got, and the explanations of the increasing complexity of the "J missions" which took heavier LMs into much more difficult terrain much more steeply. Mindell gives the best explanation I have yet read (p. 205) of the use of the Landing Point Designator (LPD), and computer incorporation of landing radar returns and resulting Delta H data into final altitude solutions for the crew. As an aside, don't stop reading until the very end: the very last page (p. 361) contans an excellent explanation of the extremely well rendered cover illustration depicting the view from Armstrong's window at about 520 feet above the lurain.

The book is, like any endeavor of this scope, not perfect, with an occasional error or typo: most seem to be due to spell check artifacts not recognizing unusual word use. (The most obvious example is the discussion of the Apollo 1201 and 1202 program alarms on p. 222 which he refers to as "executive overload" instead of "executive overflow" alarms, even though he subsequently used the word overflow correctly in reference to these same events. Amusingly enough, the quote about the alarms from Norman Mailer doesn't really make sense if you read the word as "overload.") This is, of course, nitpicking, and I absolutely don't intend to take away from a brilliant career accomplishment.

The ideal reader for this book will care passionately about manned space flight, and will find Apollo especially worthy of in-depth study. The book does not require any previous knowledge of spaceflight, human factors, computer interface issues, or aviation, but will be slower going for someone with no background in those areas (though still worthwhile). It is not a technical book in the sense that only engineers, programmers, astronauts, or pilots can glean useful information from it, but it does touch on a variety of complex subjects. Fortunately Mindell is more than up to the task and makes learning about this fascinating subject highly rewarding. I recommend this book very highly.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on February 11, 2009
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I watched all the Apollo missions as a teenager and was fascinated by the technology involved. When I read the description of this book and the other reviews, I thought this would be a fairly intimate description of how the computers worked in the LM and CM. I was hoping for details like how a computer could do the calculations it did using so little capacity. I wanted to learn all about the things the computers could do and how they were applied to phases of the mission: Walk me through the hardware and software. Instead,I got some of that, but not nearly as much as I had hoped for.

There was enough information about some of the programs, such as the landing program, that I have the impression that none of this is classified, so I don't understand why an "A to Z" book on the topic couldn't have been written. The real references to the software and hardware, unfortunately, seem mostly to be in support of the book's primary theme about the issue of man vs. computer as the controller of a spacecraft or aircraft. Unlike some of the other reviewers, I found the descriptions of the Instumentation Lab and its people to be somewhat superficial. Having read the book, I have no clear picture of how the IL's people did their daily work or even how the facility was arranged. This sort of stuff would have interested me and, I suspect, many others.

Digital Apollo isn't an offering in the spirit of "Virtual Apollo", applied to the computer systems. It gives you sips of that, but not nearly a glassful.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
As a long-time Apollo fan, I have read a shelf of material on the program, including astronaut memoirs. The digital aspects of Apollo are usually absent or minor topics, other than at key moments, such as the alarms during Apollo 11's descent, or in quick notes about how primitive the computers were by today's standards.

Not so in "Digital Apollo". The author explores a critical niche, with details of the introduction of digital processing into space flight pre-Apollo, the challenges of trailblazing not only the technology, but doing so under tremendous constraints, and the role of the guidance computer through all Apollo flights. The author emphasizes the particularly complex descent from lunar orbit to the surface.

The landing phase provides another opportunity for the author to debate the role of the human vs. the role of automation, a debate that was particularly fresh then and in that context with the stakes so high. The arguments were presented well, but here I thought Mr. Mindell was perhaps too defensive as an engineer and could have slightly de-emphasized that as a theme.

What could have used more attention was how the computer actually worked, including perhaps a sample algorithm or two, and maybe even a little code. How did those tiny little programs actually do all that elaborate computation in real-time? The occasional details, such as how the executive managed tasks by priority and how the computer could do near-instant restarts under failure conditions, were welcome and quite interesting.

Thanks to Mr. Mindell for tackling this topic and really bringing value to the field. Before this, I had thought I had maybe read my last Apollo book for a while. This one was welcome proof otherwise.

The physical quality of the book was exceptional.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on April 28, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I purchased Digital Apollo largely because I became interested in the Apollo Guidance Computer, and this was recommended as a source to learn more about its history and its role in the broader context of the Apollo Program. And the book does deliver on some of that promise. But sadly the book is just absolutely tedious to read. For the primary theme of the book, Mindell chose the conflict between those who viewed astronauts as passengers and those who viewed astronauts as pilots, and returns to it seemingly on EVERY SINGLE PAGE. We get it: the Apollo program required a careful exploration of the limits of automatic and human control of spacecraft, and was successful in part because engineers implemented a relatively nuanced intermediate strategy. Mindell has written another book on the relationship between humans and machines, and he's obviously very interested in the topic. But Mindell lets this completely overshadow every other aspect of the book. We don't gain any significant glimpse into the many visionaries who helped frame and resolve this debate. We are introduced to many names, but these names never really coalesce into real people with comprehensible motives and achievements. In the end, I found the entire book to be rather dry and boring, which is sad, since I remember coming home on a Sunday in 1969 as a five year old to watch the moon landing on television. Apollo was for me (as it was for many young people of my generation) a source of national pride, and a symbol that engineering, science and math could allow us to achieve the impossible. I can't help but wonder how anyone reading this book would be in the least bit inspired.

It is well-documented. I found it useful to send me to other books which explain more about the technology itself. But on its own? There must be better books out there on the subject.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
You might think a book entitled "Digital Apollo" would be about the development, programming and operation of the digital computers in the Apollo Command (CM) and Lunar (LM) Modules. You would be partially right. About half of Dr. David Mindell's superb volume covers those subjects, very readably and in great detail. But the book's scope is far broader than that. It is really nothing less than a comprehensive examination of the relationships between humans and machines from the earliest days of aviation, through the X-15, Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle eras, and into the future of spaceflight.

It's a fascinating story that has not, to my knowledge, previously been told in any depth. The evolution of the Apollo computer hardware and software occurred in parallel with the evolution of the attitudes of steely eyed NASA astronauts, who fought hard to avoid relinquishing any control to machines. All the early astronauts were test pilots--their hard-won experiences with primitive vacuum-tube systems in aircraft had convinced them that "electronics always fail." Thus they opposed NASA's decision, mandated by the complexity of lunar missions, to depend largely on new-fangled transistorized digital computers to help them fly the Apollo spacecraft. At one time, in those days before "fly-by-wire" control systems, some Apollo astronauts wanted actual cables connecting a conventional aircraft-type stick with the CM's attitude control rocket motors. That didn't happen. They feared that computer failures would jeopardize their missions and perhaps cost them their lives. That also didn't happen. To find out what DID happen, there's no better source than "Digital Apollo."

Dr. Mindell says his book "...tells the story of the relationship between human and machine in the Apollo project and how that relationship shaped the experience and the technology of flying to the moon. It is a story of human pilots, of automated systems, and of the two working together to achieve the ultimate in flight. It is also a story of public imagery, professional identities and social relationships among engineers, pilots, flight controllers and many others, each with their own visions of spaceflight." That's a good summary, but I'd like to add to it. First, words like "social relationships" and "working together" and "visions" should not deter technophiles from reading "Digital Apollo." Those subjects are all in there, but much of the book is at the down-and-dirty technical level of bits and bytes and magnetic core memories and DSKYs and other esoterica. Dr. Mindell superbly integrates the human and computer stories in a way that almost anyone should find interesting. Second, "Digital Apollo" is one of the best-written spaceflight books I've read in years. Its tone is brisk and conversational, but the information it contains is deep, broad and very well-explained. You don't have to be a space cadet to enjoy it. It is also exceptionally accurate. I came across only a few minor errors in the parts of the story that I know, such as calling a metal alloy used in the X-15 "Iconel-X" rather than "Inconel-X" (the alloy and the name came from the International Nickel Company, hence "Inco").

"Digital Apollo" fills a niche in the history of technology and spaceflight in a most outstanding way. It reminds me a little of Tracy Kidder's "The Soul of A New Machine," and that is high praise indeed. Even if you think you know Apollo, you should read it. You're sure to learn a lot, and be entertained in the process. I recommend it most highly.
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